Upon first receiving my review copy of this substantive little book (it is truly a work in the situation of multum in parvo), I assumed it would be classic Scott Hahn: robust Catholic teaching informed by Hahn’s extreme erudition (his deep learning is underrated because largely unknown) presented in a winsome, genial way accessible to the masses, with some clever chapter titles and section headings.
Never judge a book purely by its cover, they say. It is all these things, but it’s also subtly more. It is really a short, express argument against cremation, rooted in perennial Catholic teaching about the resurrection of the body and the historic burial practices which were themselves rooted in that teaching.
Since the Resurrection and the Eucharist are timeless eternity’s breaking into time and space, it’s fitting for us to begin at the end. Toward the close of the book, Hahn (and Stimpson—for simplicity’s sake I’ll simply refer to “Hahn” throughout) writes:
Even today, I can’t shake the image of Kimberly [Hahn’s wife] in a hospital bed [recuperating from gallstone surgery], and I can’t stop thinking about how precious and beautiful every inch of her is. The thought of burning that body, of letting an ounce of harm come to it, even after her soul left it, strikes me as sheer madness. That is the body of my bride. That is the body that was home to all six of our children on earth, plus our three other miscarried loved ones. For that alone it is a sacred place, and to burn it would be unimaginable to me. (p. 162)
Hahn’s noble feelings about the mother of his children may not compel every Catholic reader, so he ups the ante:
Beyond all the theological reasons for Mary’s Assumption into heaven, there is another very human reason Jesus never let decay touch his mother’s body. It had been his home for nine months. And you don’t burn your home just because you no longer live in it. (p. 162)
Ultimately, Hahn’s position is rooted in the Catholic conviction that the body is meaningful. Not in the sense that it provokes various feelings in people, but in the sense that it communicates, and that communication can be put even in words:
Every single day, our bodies have the capacity to convey some of the most important truths about God and man to the world. Even in death, they speak about who we are. They attest to our weakness and our need for Christ. But they also remind us that there is more to come. The body at rest in death is not meant to stay at rest. The very wrongness we feel when we look at the body of a person who was just alive helps us know that death isn’t the end. More is still to come. And when we respond to that, when we treat the body for what it is and for what it was in life, burying it, not burning it, our bodies continue to teach the world about the dignity of the human person and the extraordinary fate that awaits us on the last day. (p. 161)
Body language: throughout the book, in a way those familiar with St. John Paul II’s theology of the body will recognize, Hahn will suggest and remark that the body and all practices associated with it are significant, they’re meaningful. They say something. They speak, and they can speak truly or falsely. Body language bears witness to the truth of God or betrays that truth.
Hahn then remarks:
Is it permissible to burn the body? Yes, it is. But when you understand what the body is, what it does, and what it’s made for, when you truly see the body as it is now and as it will be, that makes burning it unthinkable. (p. 163)
So cremation, like many things in the postconciliar Church, is permitted, not preferred. Hahn had earlier rehearsed the history of the Church’s permission of the practice. He observes that there is a distinction between Church doctrine—things like the true divinity of the Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity—and Church discipline—things like Friday abstinence (Hahn’s particular example, pp. 143-144).
Here Hahn hits upon a real problem for the faithful in the postconciliar Church: we have a lot of options. We can receive communion in the hand in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, or (the Rite’s normative practice) on the tongue (receiving in the hand is a matter of indult for particular national episcopal conferences). We can abstain from meat on Fridays or do some other penance of our choosing. Music directors can pick from four options for the opening “cantus,” (chant, or song). We can choose between the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Mass. We can receive communion from a priest or deacon or an extraordinary minister. (If memory serves, in his book Evangelizing Catholics Hahn suggested refraining from doing so. Hahn has never been a controversialist, but one finds hints now of his taking specific sides on controverted issues in his writings.)
Hahn thus observes, rightly, that cremation isn’t a matter of doctrine, but discipline, and that it came about for both nefarious reasons (pressures from Communists and Socialists and Freemasons and Modernists out to destroy the Christian influence in modern societies) and more anodyne, practical ones (changing situations and contexts on the ground causing good-faith calls for cremation).
Hahn notes that in 1886, the then-contemporary Code of Canon Law introduced the following:
The bodies of the faithful must be buried, their cremation is forbidden. … Anyone who has requested that his body shall be cremated shall be deprived of ecclesiastical burial unless he has shown signs of repentance before death. (p. 147, quoting Corpus Juris Canonici 1203.1 and 1240.1; ellipsis is original to Hahn)
But St. Pope Paul VI changed course in 1963 in Piam et Constantem. Hahn quotes him at length:
The reverent, unbroken practice of burying the bodies of the faithful departed is something the Church has always taken pains to encourage. It has surrounded the practice with rites suited to bring out more clearly the symbolic and religious significance of burial and has threatened with penalties those who might attack the sound practice. The Church has especially employed such sanctions in the face of hate-inspired assaults against Christian practices and traditions by those who, imbued with the animosity of their secret societies, sought to replace burial by cremation. This practice was meant to be a symbol of their antagonistic denial of Christian dogma, above all of the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul. (p. 148, quoting Piam et Constantem 3336)
Paul VI reminds the faithful that burial is the preferred norm:
All necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed. Accordingly, through proper instruction and persuasion Ordinaries are to ensure that the faithful refrain from cremation and not discontinue the practice of burial except when forced to do so by necessity. For the Church has always maintained the practice of burial and consecrated it through liturgical rites. (p. 148-149, quoting Piam et Constantem 3337)
Hahn draws attention to the precise language of “except when forced to do so by necessity.” Compare that to the contemporary Code of Canon Law, which reads, “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; it does not however forbid cremation, unless it is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (p. 150, quoting canon 1176.3). Then, in 2016, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an “Instruction regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of ashes in case of creation.” There the traditional preference for burial is affirmed in strong terms, but remarks that cremation has become “unstoppable” (p. 152, quoting the “Instruction,” no. 3), and instructs that ashes are not to be scattered nor made into jewelry nor kept at home but be reposed in a sacred space.
Hahn thus writes, “And that’s where the Church stands today. It does not approve of cremation; it permits it. It does not permit the scattering of ashes or their retention in homes; it forbids it. It considers burial the most fitting way to care for the bodies of the dead until they rise again on the last day and urges us to follow that recommendation” (p. 153).
The question is, will the Church tomorrow permit what it forbids today? Hahn does not raise that question, but his simple recounting of the pertinent texts on cremation from the last century and a half certainly does. For this reason, Hahn’s book is troubling for the sensitive reader. Three areas merit comment:
First, there is the question of the pace of change in the Church’s discipline. The more and faster the Church’s authorities in their God-given authority soften her positions and expand her permissions the less confidence the faithful have in the Church’s discipline in the moment. (Think here of the practical pastoral softening of the Church’s teaching on contraception prior to the bombshell of Humanae Vitae, or the seeming loosening of the Church’s discipline on marriage in Amoris Laetitia.)
Second, we see in what Hahn quotes and discusses an instance of a wider pattern, where the perceived possibility of changing discipline thanks to assumed necessity or context or cultural conditions becomes permission, which in turn later becomes regular practice. A timely example would be communion in the hand. The Church here in its discipline and practices runs the real risk of accommodation to the spirit of the age, and thus reducing itself to one more mere organ in the organism of contemporary culture.
Third, the divorce of doctrine and discipline is disastrous. Doctrine cannot change while discipline can, but discipline (whether liturgical, or moral, or sacramental, or in any other area) must remain moored to doctrine. The Incarnation means practice and belief are inseparable. Not only can we not think and act in terms of a hermeneutic of rupture between the preconciliar and postconciliar Churches—as if there were two, as if since the Council we have sung a new Church into being—but also we cannot think and act in terms of a rupture between doctrine on one hand and discipline and practice on the other.
Innovators may protest that their innovations do not touch the substance of doctrine but only the form of practice, but that’s actually a problem, not a recommendation; a bug, not a feature. For Catholics learn the faith not so much by what they read in the Catechism but by what they do week in and week out in Mass, day in and day out in their practices (a point Hahn returns to with subtlety several times). Perhaps surveys reveal that the majority of Mass-going Catholics do not believe what the Church teaches officially about the Eucharist because of the way the Eucharistic liturgy and distribution of communion is practiced. Mutatis mutandis Hahn’s deepest if unstated concern in his book is that the practice of cremation will efface, if not destroy, Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead.
The belief in the resurrection of the dead, Hahn rightly observes, was the reason for the Church’s longstanding practice of inhumation (burial) and the corollary prohibition of cremation. In chapter 10, “The Witness of History”—a chapter worth the minimal price of the book itself—Hahn points out that unlike most pagans (committed Stoics and certain others being an exception), Christians did not fear death but embraced it, given the resurrection of the body. And they buried their dead, when almost all others were practicing cremation. Hahn makes the claim (disputed by some, like the legendary historian Ramsay Macmullen) that Christian inhumation caused a sea change in burial practices among the wider populace beyond the confines of the Church (many in the Roman empire began burying their dead in the third and fourth centuries). And of course bones were regarded as holy, giving rise to relics and pilgrimages in the early Church as well as in the medieval period.
In valuing the Christian body, the Church and her members were simply acting in accord with the New Testament witness to the goodness of the body and the resurrection of the dead. Most of Hahn’s work in the book is actually a tracing out of salvation history from the perspective of the body, a history which involves the resurrection of Jesus’ broken, sacrificed body, his presence in (as, really) the sacrificial Eucharist, and our own resurrection at the end of time. The Eucharist, the source and summit of Christian life, is Life itself, the incarnate, risen, divine, sacrificial Son of God come to us in the Mass, in our reception of Holy Communion. It is not just soul and divinity but blood and body, and this, Hahn fears, will get lost to the degree that Catholic Christians embrace cremation. We will become Platonists.
I happen to think he’s right. But that’s not what makes this a good popular book. It is readable while being rich in content, and quite apart from issues concerning cremation invaluable in today’s age when the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is often misunderstood even where known and orally confessed, in an age when most Christians believe something closer to Platonism or Gnosticism than Christianity. It would make a good resource for small group study or even RCIA: It teaches and reminds contemporary readers that without faith in the resurrection of Christ and the body, our faith is in vain, we are without hope, we make God a liar, and we are to be pitied above all men (see 1 Corinthians 15:12-19).
Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body
By Scott Hahn, with Emily Stimpson Chapman
Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road, 2020
Hardcover, 192 pages
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