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Vatican's new ruling on cremations is outrageous threat to the faithful

By Alf McCreary

Published 29/10/2016

Spiritual journey: the Belfast Telegraph’s late political editor, Liam Clarke, was a Zen Buddhist, and wrote inspiringly about facing up to his terminal illness
Spiritual journey: the Belfast Telegraph’s late political editor, Liam Clarke, was a Zen Buddhist, and wrote inspiringly about facing up to his terminal illness

Right on cue for Halloween and the eve of All Saints' Day, when traditionally people remembered the Saints and their own dear departed, the Vatican has produced a ruling about human ashes.

In a decree authorised by Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic Church has decided that if your loved ones are cremated, you must not keep their ashes at home, or preserve them in jewellery or other objects, or spread them in an area that was dear to their hearts.

Instead, the ashes should be kept in a proper place in a church or part of a cemetery "which has been set aside for this purpose."

The Catholic Church has also warned that if people disobey these rules, then "a Christian funeral must be denied to that person."

The decree also states that "the Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased."

All of this sounds like a high-handed clerical intrusion into the very private and intimate subject as to how a person or a family decide upon the funeral arrangements of a loved one.

Indeed, as a non-Roman Catholic, this sounds to me outrageous. How can the cremation of a human being in any way show "less esteem towards the deceased."?

No doubt many of the faithful Roman Catholic will obey these ridiculous new restrictions, but I have long sat lightly on-the man-made rules which claim to reflect the wishes of God.

Take, for example, the unofficial Catholic teaching on 'limbo', which must have broken the hearts of millions of parents whose child died before being baptised.

This teaching has been now declared "false" by the Catholic Church, but what about the hurt it caused families for centuries?

So I hope that Catholics will make up their own minds about whether they want to be buried, or cremated, or where their ashes should be kept or scattered.

However, I fear that the Catholic Church's threat of not giving a Christian burial to those who break the rules, will deter many people from following their own wishes.

Much is made of human rights today, but I believe that dying and dead people have their own rights too, and that they should be recognised.

All of which reminds me of my former colleague, the distinguished journalist Liam Clarke, who was a Zen Buddhist and whose ashes were scattered on the ocean in Donegal.

This symbolised the free spirit of Liam, who was his own man.

He chose the spiritual path which suited him in his life, and he faced his death with courage and insight.

The BBC transmitted, in its excellent True North series, a most intimate television programme about his last days and his funeral. It was a searing portrayal of the grief at the heart of a family in the midst of bereavement.

For some people it may have been almost too difficult to watch, while for others it may have been deeply inspiring.

Either way, it was one of the most remarkable programmes I have seen on the too-often "taboo" subject of death.

Yet perhaps even more revealing was an article by Liam for this newspaper, some time after he received the news that his rare cancer was terminal.

It was thoughtful, inspiring and deeply spiritual, and he exhorted all of us to appreciate and enjoy every moment and experience, in the knowledge that all our lives will end some day.

Part of his philosophy was close to some of the deep insights of Christianity, and in a period where we have been embroiled in various church-secular-gay issues, it is important to remember that Christianity is not the only great world religion.

We could learn from others as well, if only we had the heart and head to listen to the wisdom and experience of others on the life's journey which we all share.

Sadly, for too many of us here, that would be a step too far.

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