Although I fully expect that the USCCB’s fall General Assembly this November in Baltimore will be consumed with the clerical sexual abuse scandal (and remain amazed that, given the depth of this sordid scandal, the bishops are sitting around for another two months before they meet) but I want to put forward another issue for the bishops’ discussion: the cost of funerals.

I have no doubt that the clerical sexual abuse scandal will probably suck most of the oxygen out of the room at the USCCB meeting, but “time and tide” wait for no bishop – and these issues cannot continue to be deferred while the bishops indulge themselves in talking about their own negligence for why the Church in the United States is in the sorry state it is. But there are other things going on in the larger culture, trends that are acquiring a greater permanence, and we cannot delay addressing them because the bishops need to fix what they failed to fix for decades.

The bishops meet in November, traditionally the month Catholics devote to praying for the dead. There are several aspects about Catholic funeral practice that demand attention:

  • Cremation is overtaking earth burial in many parts of the country, and Catholic behavior in this respect is not fundamentally different from the rest of the population. Some “funeral industry” specialists think that, by 2035 (i.e., in 17 years), 80 percent of funerals will end in cremation.
  • The Catholic Church still officially prefers earth burial, as imitative of Jesus Christ who lay in a tomb, to cremation. Yes, the Church did rescind its prohibition against cremation in 1963. But the Church has always frowned on cremation, whether motivated from pagan motives (think Vikings) or materialist philosophy that denied the Resurrection of the Body (think the Enlightenment). Even though the Church tolerates cremation, it still prefers the burial of its faithful.
  • In 2016, the Holy See issued an instruction, Ad resurgendum cum Christo, reiterating the Church’s preference for earth burial and making clear that certain increasingly common contemporary practices, such as keeping the ashes of one’s deceased at home or scattering them on beaches, at sea, or in the Grand Canyon, is incompatible with the regard a Catholic should show for the human body (which was the temple of the Holy Spirit). The most cursory survey of dioceses shows that instruction has generated neither a bang nor a whimper.
  • The average funeral costs about $7,000-10,000. The average cremation costs around $3,500, i.e., half the cost of earth burial. Whenever I have written against the trend toward cremation, the overwhelming number of critical responses I got in reply from Catholics was that funerals cost too much.
  • I have asked why it costs $500-1200 to dig a hole at a cemetery, and been told by Catholic gravediggers—for whom this ministry is also their living—that there are costs connected with burial, especially when it comes to unionized gravediggers. (But does a worker and a backhoe really cost that much?) Presumably, we do not want to repeat Cardinal Spellman’s 1949 fiasco when he used seminarians to dig graves to prevent cemetery unionization. There are also costs—sometimes imposed by states—as regards the need to assure perpetual care.
  • There is something wrong when Catholics who might otherwise want to follow Church practice and bury their loved ones reverently are forced by economic factors to do otherwise.

I expect that, in the wake of the clerical sex scandal, many bishops will resort to “listening sessions” (as is already the case in the Archdiocese of Washington). I am not sure why we need “listening sessions.” We know what the problem is. What we need are bishops with the intestinal fortitude to do something about it, i.e., teach and implement Catholic sexual ethics (including in the selection of seminarians) and discipline (rather than hide) their errant colleagues and subordinates. What I am afraid of is that the bishops will use “listening sessions” as an attempt to placate the outrage they rightly face, even as they prevaricate about how to “respond.”

But if the bishops are intent on “listening,” I am far more interested in having some sessions on the parish and diocesan level, about how Catholics can be able to be buried as Catholics, i.e., how to address the high cost of funerals. These are not problems that can be tackled in one place alone. They need systematic analysis and, given the size of the Catholic Church (with its commensurate “market share”), it is on that level that the problem can be addressed.

I would love to see parishes observe November not just by including prayer for the dead (although that is job one) but also inviting Catholics to consider their own memento mori. At the very least, parishes should provide an opportunity for people to learn about preparation for death, including funeral planning, current costs, legal issues like wills, etc. That should be an annual process in most parishes, hopefully involving the members of the parish in “the funeral industry.”

I would welcome priests not just talking about praying for the dead in November (still a somewhat anemic phenomenon) but also talking about preparation for death for the living. Pace the contemporary platitude, funerals are not “primarily about the dead but the living.” They are about praying for the dead. But they are about the living not just as a means of consoling the grieving, but also reminding them that “today me, tomorrow you” (mihi hodie, tibi cras).

Finally, what we really need is a systematic (preferably national) USCCB-led process to address the impediments to being buried as a Catholic. How can we, as a Church, address the high cost of funerals today so that Catholics (a) understand and (b) can afford to be buried—rather than cremated—as Catholics? How can we assemble the data we need to challenge trends that are bigger than the Church but in which the Church has a basic interest?

If the USCCB shirks this, can we hope some archbishops might think of introducing these processes province-wide?

We pay lip service to the preference for earth burial over cremation, just as we paid lip service to the norm that Friday is a day of penance even though mandatory abstinence is dispensed. We know the reality: Catholics heard one part (the dispensation), not the other (the preference). I very much fear that cremation as a funerary practice is going in the same direction. The creeping Gnosticism and a weird “environmental – friendly” consciousness that thinks of embodiment as just another “carbon footprint” abets this process, with some even affording it the veneer of a dubious (I would say faux) spirituality.

So, amid the bishops’ likely preoccupation this fall with sorting out the skeletons in their own closets, can we hope that somebody might raise the question of how to help Catholics be buried as Catholics?