One of the things that stands out about the Church is her insistence at respecting the human person at every stage of his or her existence. This, of course, starts in the womb. The Church seems to be the only one upset about the way our society disposes of living, developing human beings in the womb. That accumulation of genetic processes that occur with amazing intelligence without any human direction (but of course for us believers with Divine assistance!) is an important fact of life.
However, one also has to see the concern of the Church for the human person as he or she ages and dies in this earthly life. The traditional respect for the body of a deceased person is part of this revered continuum. End-of-life (earthly life that is) issues are part of this love for God’s creation of the human person. Hence the care with which we urge each person to communicate to their loved ones their wishes in regard to the extent of medical intervention that is envisioned by them as well as the rites desired by them to be celebrated at their passing away to higher realms.
This respect, when extended to dealing with the remains of a person, may seem to be exaggerated. What does it matter what one does to a dead human body? But Christianity, following from Judaism’s real respect for the physical nature of the person, always counseled an honorable and reverent burial of the body. Cremation was not allowed for a Christian because of the future resurrection of the body. Our concept of the soul being the real human being that is released from the body at death is a remnant of Platonic philosophy. Christianity and Judaism take our flesh much more seriously. Even in the doctrine of the Eucharist, we receive not the soul of Christ but His body! It was always the militant anti-religious forces that pushed cremation of the body as an act of unbelief in Christianity. Even today, cremation is allowed by the Church as long as two conditions are met: that the cremation not be construed as an act of unbelief in the resurrection of the body, and secondly that the cremains be interred in a Cemetery and not kept in the home or scattered in the backyard!
Recently there was a news report that a man, to honor his friend’s passing away, promised to go to every Ball Park that they had gone to together and to deposit some of his friend’s ashes at that park. He was to do it by flushing them down a toilet at the park during one of the games! Clearly we react to this simply because flushing remains into a toilet strikes us as an act of disrespect no matter what the intentions of the person might be.
The Church’s insistence on the burial of the remains in consecrated ground is part of her continued call to respect the dignity of the human person at every stage of life, even into the person’s death. This, I think, is a very good thing in a world where everything becomes disposable. The human person is a product of genetic heritage (Nature) and earthly history (Nurture). As such, the reality of each person must be honored and what that person ‘is’ includes what the person has become through the accidents of history and their own free choices.
Whether we are talking about the embryo in the womb or the elderly person in the hospital bed, the holy is present and must be reverenced. We are not free to do what we want whether by Abortion or flushing down a toilet to this being that becomes through its own history. Many react at any strictures imposed on human choices, but doing whatever I want is not freedom; it is license, which, unfettered, could be very destructive to humanity and even the earth.
Often our commitment to great ideals is revealed through small actions which, when taken together, exhibit and even protect one’s basic stance in life. One can speak greatly about the love of parents to their newborn baby, but it is the daily diaper changing and the daily feeding and the, often nightly, tending to the infant that shows the love.
So also with the dignity of the human person. It is should be seen in the many small actions and decisions which enflesh and makes real that dignity.