As a nation we have tended to view ourselves as a people who do death well — so it was something of a surprise to hear that, according to the Vatican, we might have been falling short.
In a two-page instruction regarding new rules on cremation, the Catholic Church said it prefers burial over cremation and that it also wants ashes of the dead to be kept in “sacred places”, rather than being maintained at home, divided among family members, or scattered.
“The conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted,” it said, bar in “grave and exceptional cases” to be decided by the local bishop. The Church only began allowing cremation in 1963.
The doctrinal instruction caught many unawares, including funeral directors. According to Colm Kieran of Kieran Brothers Funeral Care in Kingscourt, Co Cavan, cremation, and what to do with the ashes afterwards, will always be a personal decision.
Colm, a spokesman for the Irish Association of Funeral Directors, said one option being explored by more people is interring the ashes of a loved one in a memorial wall. However, he said funeral directors are seldom privy to what the families plan to do with the ashes of a loved one, meaning this edict from the Vatican may not influence many people to change their plans.
“Without talking on anyone’s behalf, we can read between the lines and see how people are following religious doctrine or not,” Colm said.
According to the IAFD there is an urban-rural divide when it comes to how people are laid to rest. Such is the lack of availability of plots in Dublin, cremation now accounts for between 40% and 50% of all burials, whereas in rural areas the figure for cremation is estimated at between 10% and 15% of all burials.
This also reflects, at least in part, the relative cost of burial versus cremation, particularly in Dublin. A plot in Glasnevin Cemetery can cost between €2,000 and €15,000, according to the IAFD, whereas cremation is between €400 and €600. Needless to say, cost for headstones and other add-ons also needed to be factored in, meaning cremation is often a more cost-effective option.
The situation is not quite so acute in Cork City. Stephen Scully, administrative officer with Cork City Council’s recreation and sport section, said: “The City Council has four cemeteries St Finbarrs in Glasheen, St Catherine’s in Kilcully, St Joseph’s in Ballyphehane and St Michael’s in Mahon.
“At present there are plots available for immediate burial in both St Michaels and at St Catherines with capacity for many years to come,” he said adding that prior purchase is not allowed. “We have lands purchased to facilitate an extension to St Catherine’s and we will be proceeding with same in the next few years.
“We do plan to provide columbariums in the cemeteries in the medium term that would accommodate the storage of ashes. At present, some of those with burial plots in our cemeteries also accommodate ashes.”
Meanwhile, in rural areas plots can be secured from between €200 and €1,000. According to Colm, in the past people might have questioned the viability of opening a crematorium outside of Dublin or other larger cities, but that is now changing. According to Frank Murphy, manager of the Island Crematorium in Ringaskiddy, Co Cork, since the day they opened there has been a “steady increase” in the number of people using their services and this has become “very noticeable in the last two years”.
“You can see the increase by the month,” he added. “People are more knowledgeable about cremation. We have a beautiful facility here and it does change people’s minds.”
It also shows in the figures. By early 2017, Dublin will have three crematoriums, while planning permission was lodged some time ago regarding a crematorium in Galway, and in Shannon, alongside the existing facilities in Cavan and Cork.
The clarified Vatican position regarding what to do with ashes — don’t scatter them, but rather, lay them to rest in consecrated ground — will help some older people, according to Frank.
“It’s certainly going to make it clear they are in favour of cremation,” he said. As for the distinction between what the Catholic Church would prefer, that ashes are not scattered, and what people might have planned to do, he said: “A lot of people have made their own decision about their ashes prior to dying.” In many cases, they are unlikely to change those plans.
Frank also believes the Vatican’s new position on cremation will also focus attention on the shortage of burial plots generally.
“At the moment you have to buy a full grave,” he said. “The other positive thing is that the local authorities and churchyard cemeteries will see that there is a great need for plots.”
Purchasing a smaller plot for the interment of caskets would ease pressure on space and would be able to be used over a long number of years. He believes up to six wooden caskets could be accommodated on one small grave site.
One argument posited by some Church figures is that having an urn or casket containing the ashes of a loved one in the house can inhibit that person from moving on.
However, according to Colm and Frank, in many cases someone might be maintaining the ashes of their spouse or partner only until they themselves pass on, at which point both will be interred in the same plot, following the advice issued this week by the Vatican and turning any interregnum, however long, into a “temporary” period.
There are other issues surrounding death and how we treat those who have passed on. The IAFD has lobbied for the reinstatement of the bereavement grant, dropped at the height of the recession. According to Colm Kierans, there is still a means-tested grant available via Community Welfare Officers, but this is “not over-subscribed”.
“One of the main issues is the speed at which some legal practitioners process legal probate,” Colm said. “The probate process can be slow but sometimes it’s not assisted by the way some legal practitioners carry out their work.”
This can mean that a family, grieving the loss of a loved one, can end up waiting for probate details to be finalised, with the undertakers regularly last in the queue for payment.
“We have been working with the Law Society to inform solicitors that there are mechanisms in place to speed up the process,” Colm said. “They have been very helpful.”
Has the input from Rome on cremation and ashes proved helpful? Only time will tell.
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