Facing New Decisions: Liquifying Our Loved Ones?

Something that we all have in common is that, at some point, we will face our own mortality. While to the world this is an unattractive thought that is better left unsaid, for followers of Jesus, reflecting on our own death can be a fruitful exercise, as our faith tells us that this life isn’t it, that the best is yet to come, and that we are on this earth to prepare for the real world of heaven. The prospect of death has both spiritual and practical implications. I would like to address a practical implication of death that is relevant in our world today: Human Composting or aquamation.

In Ancient Rome, the early Christian’s graves were easily identifiable because of the reverence with which they buried the bodies, while pagans were known for cremating bodies. The reason for this is as we state in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe…in the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.”As a people who follow Jesus, we believe that the way that He took to the Father (death and resurrection) is also what is to happen to His followers at the end of time. This means that both our bodies and our souls will be reunited at the end of time. By burying our bodies whole, it testifies to the reality of the resurrection in each of the elect, in sharp contrast with that of the pagans who cared little about the body after death. This is also where the phrase “Rest in Peace” comes from: Christians would say rest or sleep in peace, implying that they would be one day waking up again. The prospect of Eternal Life and of Resurrection is an extremely consoling thing to meditate on in a world that insists our happiness is now or never.

Today, the Church still holds that burial of the body is the preferred method of laying our bodies to rest until the resurrection, though for pastoral reasons, cremation is also permitted by the Church. In the last 15 years, a different process of cremation has arisen that is problematic on a number of levels. Aquamation, scientifically called alkaline hydrolysis, is a process “which uses water, chemicals, heat, and pressure in an airtight chamber to reduce the human body in less than a day to bone fragments and a neutral liquid than can be ‘discharged with all other wastewater’” (NationalCatholicRegister). Reasons for choosing this over traditional burial have to do with the environmentally friendly components. Rather than chemicals used in embalmment; or placing the body in a metal or wooden coffin; or emitting harmful carbon emissions into the air via the normal process of cremation, supporters say organic reduction is environmentally superior.

While the Church will be one of the first to voice their support for being good stewards of God’s Creation (see Pope Francis’ extensive writings on the topic), human composting’s dealing with the body lack the dignity and respect that it deserves. Here is what the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops said, citing the document from the Dicastry for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome:

“In memory of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord, the mystery that illuminates the Christian meaning of death, burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body… while the Church prefers burial because it shows the greatest esteem towards the deceased, there is nothing about the practice of cremation in itself that conflicts with Church teaching about the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the body. Of particular importance, however, is the manner in which the cremated remains (the ashes) are treated.”

In this light, while burial is preferred, cremation is permitted as long at the ashes are laid to rest in a sacred place or Church approved place, so we may respectfully honor the dead and continue to remember to pray for them. This means keeping ashes in the home or scattering them in the air or land is not permitted. While the beginnings of human composting and alkaline hydrolysis looks somewhat like cremation, it is what happens to what is left over that differs and becomes problematic. While in cremation the remains are placed in an urn, in alkaline hydrolysis a large percentage of the body is dissolved into a brown liquid, and once the process is complete, this liquid with the bodily remains is disposed into the sewer system like wastewater. This does not show adequate respect for the human body, express hope in the resurrection, nor treat the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. You can see more information on this on the USCCB’s website by searching “On the Proper Disposition of Bodily Remains.”

The reason I bring this up is because it affects all of us and as of recently, some funeral homes in the Forest Lake area have started to offer this as an option. Please be informed about this yourselves and questions are always welcome on the topic. Please join me in continued prayer for our beloved dead.

                                                                                                 Requiescat in Aeternam Pacem,

                                                                                                 Fr. Bodin

(Reprinted with permission, Church of St. Peter Parish Bulletin, February 11, 2024.)

This article, Facing New Decisions: Liquifying Our Loved Ones? is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

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Fr. Daniel Bodin

Father Bodin is the Pastor of the Church of St. Peter in Forest Lake, Minnesota.

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