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Together forever and ever

Together forever and ever

AS a Catholic I agree, absolutely, with the Church’s teaching that the ashes of our dear departed must be interred in an appropriate place like a cemetery or a church, but I’m pretty much tolerant of other people’s beliefs when it came to such, whether or not they’re Catholics. Having lived in other lands and met or known people of divergent cultures and beliefs I’ve come to empathize with those who don’t share my thinking. It’s a live-and-let-live world, after all.

I’ve been to a non-Catholic home in Metromanila that has a collection of urns containing ancestors’ ashes in the living room, which the homeowners display with as much pride as Filipino parents have who fill their walls with diplomas of their children.

I’ve been to a truly specil garden restaurant in Quezon Province where a unique four-poster shed stands, with some flowers and a lighted candle in the middle. Not seeing the candle’s reason for being in such a place, I asked our guide. He said the shed was actually a shrine, and he pointed at an earthen jar on top of a post, next to the ceiling, saying it contained the ashes of the owner’s mother, a Catholic. Apparently the restaurant owner was so close to his mother in life that he wants to maintain that closeness even in death.

Abroad, I met a middle aged lady who didn’t know what to do with her mother’s ashes in her house. Long before “eco-cemeteries” existed, they scattered her father’s ashes in a public park, around a flowering hedge. The park was the family’s favorite summer picnic destination when they were kids—and her mother’s wish was for her ashes to be joined with her father’s when her turn came. When her turn came, the family went back to the park to honor her wish. But she returned home still carrying her mother’s ashes. As they were to learn then, a fire years ago had razed to the ground a considerable area of the park, making it now impossible to locate the exact spot of her father’s “burial”.

Some of the weirdest things people do to be together forever with their loved ones reflect a somewhast self-centered sentimentality that makes detachment difficult. The parents of an apparently well-loved high school student in the US who died in a car accident reportedly gave little scoops of the boy’s ashes to his closest friends. Some put theirs in lockets to wear around the neck; some glued the ashes to the picture of the deceased and hung it up their study wall; and a few had the ashes ground superfine, mixed it with tattoo ink, and had themselves tattooed with it. Still, a few snorted the pulverized remains mixed with illegal drugs for a different kind of high—the ultimate high for some, plain morbid for others.

An immigrant family I know have for years kept the ashes of their parents in cardboard boxes in their basement, waiting for the time they’ll retire in the Philippines after decades of toil for dollars in the Land of the Free: “We wouldn’t want to leave our parents here alone; we want to be all together in the place of our birth.” They are Catholics, and want to remain a closely knit family until they hear the blare of the resurrection trumpets.

A lady friend in her late 30s—she’s Catholic by birth, New Age-ish by inclination—keeps her mother’s inurned ashes on her night table, in open defiance of her siblings who wanted to bury them in their father’s grave which was their mother’s wish. Whatever people do with the cremains of their dearly departed often seems to be a matter of purely personal considerations, and show an utter lack (especially among Catholics) of knowledge or concern for the Church’s stand on the matter. I have observed that among many Protestants, it’s just a matter of choice since they say the bible has no specific teaching on cremation. But we Catholics do, so why do we behave as though we owned our loved ones’ashes?

I myself would tolerate others’ practices, even among Catholics I know, but recently I realized I would put my foot firmly down (that the Church’s rule on this be followed) if it came to my own family. I never thought I’d be “tested” on this until it was time to bury our daughter-in-law. Since her demise at age 50 was inevitable due to terminal lung cancer, the families from both sides had agreed to follow her wishes: wear white, three nights wake, burial in their family plot in her birth place Bataan, etc.
As preparations were under way, everything was smooth sailing, until our family was informed that the ashes, after the three-night wake in Bataan, would be transported to Manila to wait until the 40th day to be buried. This was not among her wishes, nor our family’s desire, so where did the idea come from? (And where would the urn be kept in Manila? Certainly not in our home). We never did find out who really introduced the changes since it was her siblings in Bataan who were overseeing everything, and I was careful not to offend her sibling who had left the Church to become a fervent member of a Christian sect. But I did my homework. I burned the midnight oil reading up Vatican documents not only on the Church’s stand on cremation but more specifically on the treatment of the cremated remains. Our daughter in law was a devoted Catholic, and so should be buried accordingly. I wanted to be sure that my feet were planted on solid ground.

During the last night of the wake, there was still nothing final on the proposed 40-day wait in Manila, as no one had raised the issue. Fortunately, a young priest came to bless the body—I took the opportunity to ask him about his opinion on the contentious plan, and sought his affirmation of my readings. Not only was he grateful “for reminding me of the Church teaching”—he also gave an animated talk to the congregation which included what we Catholics should and should not do with our beloved’s ashes. “The remains of the dead do not belong to the family. They belong to God. After the Mass and cremation, straight to the cemetery, the final resting place, no distributing of ashes, no scattering in the sea or in the mountains, no wearing the ashes around your neck, no 9-day or 40-day wait.” I believe that kind of talk should be given at each and every Catholic burial, and I hope that one day our Lady Vice President would be around to listen. And that’s the truth.
While they “wait for the sounds /blare of theresurrection trumpets…”