At Large

To burn or not to burn

I forget the title of the movie about homeless seniors in Los Angeles who want to help a dead friend. But one scene has stayed with me all these years.

Somehow, they manage to raise enough money to have his remains cremated, but how to honor his wish that his ashes be scattered in the sea? These are homeless guys who cannot afford to pay the fare for public transport to the seaside. But one of them is hit by a bright idea—scatter their friend’s ashes in one of LA’s irrigation canals that presumably lead to the sea. On the day of their friend’s “funeral,” the derelicts gather in front of the canal and open the coffee can containing the ashes. But the wind rises suddenly, scattering the ashes not down the canal but onto the old men’s faces!


After gasping and shuddering, one gives voice to their common sentiment, cussing out their friend and saying it’s typical of him to make trouble for those who mean him well. It’s a truly comic moment, though poignant as well, but the scene is, I guess, as clear an illustration as any of the perils of cremation.

Thankfully, funeral parlors have devised civilized and sanitized ways of dealing with “cremains,” such as columbaria.


The local columbaria I’ve seen have rows of mini niches where the urns are kept, with marble facings bearing the names and basic info, and occasionally photos, of the deceased.

However, telenovela fans should recall Korean columbaria, which have rows of niches behind glass doors, like those in the automats of old. But instead of food, a niche holds the urn, a photo or two of the deceased, and personal tokens like jewelry, a toy, or a favorite book.

Relatives can come by and unlock the sealed door to add to or change the contents of a niche.

In some series, the niches play a crucial role as sometimes they’re used to hold secret documents or diaries.

But some aren’t content with even such niceties. Sometimes, the ashes are placed in small vials that are then worn as pendants by family members. I’ve also seen websites containing the most outlandish designs for urns that speak to both the dead’s obsessions and the living’s preoccupations.

And, of course, speaking of Koreanovelas, fans are familiar, too, with scenes in which survivors bring the urn to scatter the ashes over a mountainside, a lake, or even the ocean.

Some, unwilling to be separated from their loved one, simply choose to take the urn home. I remember visiting a cousin’s home one All Saints Day to pray for his recently deceased wife, and when we asked where her urn was, he pointed to a nearby TV set where the urn sat. And so we found ourselves praying the rosary in front of the TV set. Thankfully, “Eat Bulaga” was not airing!


Maybe such stories are the reason the Vatican recently issued guidelines that prohibit, among other things, keeping the ashes at home, scattering them, or dividing them among family members. Instead, the Vatican emphasized, the ashes of the dead must be kept in “sacred places” such as cemeteries or church crypts. This, even as it declared that the Church prefers burial over cremation. And though the Vatican allowed cremation starting in 1963, it still frowns on the practice.

My personal belief, one which I’ve written about repeatedly here, is that cremation is a humane solution to the problem. Ours is a finite planet, and pretty soon we’ll run out of land and space to bury the dead—not to mention house the living. In its guidelines, the Vatican said that while it accepts cremation, it shouldn’t lead to a repudiation of the idea of the Resurrection, where at the end of days the body shall be reunited (whole and integral) with the soul.

I have a bit of trouble wrapping my head around such a concept, because for one thing, who determines what form the “body” of the dead shall reappear—in one’s teens, young adulthood, senior years, or as it lay rotting under the earth?

The recourse to cremation, said the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “cannot be legitimized by an appeal to the sanitary, social or economic motives that may have occasioned the choice of cremation.” Well, one thing’s for sure: For the deceased, such rules, regulations and reasons won’t matter.

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TAGS: all saints day, columbary, cremation, death, funeral
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