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Church of England worried about wandering remains

Church of England worried about wandering remains

The Daily Telegraph reports consternation among church officials as a growing number of exhumation requests reflects a new attitude towards burial grounds as the final resting place for loved ones.

The Telegraph and the Daily Express each note that the Ministry of Justice receives around 25 requests every week to exhume human remains, many from family members who wish to take their loved ones with them when they move home.

The Church of England must approve such requests when the remains are interred in consecrated ground. A spokesperson told the Express,

“Since there is a presumption that Christian burial was permanent and that remains should not be portable, a faculty (the licence to carry out work) for exhumation would only exceptionally be granted.

The permanent burial of the physical body – or the burial of cremated remains – should be seen as a symbol of our entrusting the person to God for resurrection.

We are commending the person to God, saying farewell to them (for their ‘journey’), entrusting them in peace for their ultimate destination, with us, the heavenly Jerusalem.

This commending, entrusting, resting in peace does not sit easily with ‘portable remains’, which suggests the opposite: a holding on to the ‘symbol’ of a human life rather than a giving back to God.”

Timothy Briden, Chancellor of the Diocese of Bath and Wells and chair of the Ecclesiastical Judges Association, said that,

“An alarming number of people seem to have lost the notion of the grave as the final resting place and see human remains as assets to be dug up and taken with them like any other possessions when they move house.”

The Association sees the development as a sign that burial has lost its “religious and moral” significance in an increasingly secular society.

What do you think?


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Gary Paul Gilbert

Thomas Laqueur says that scattering cremated remains started after WWII. A more mobile society has less need of cemeteries because families are often scattered far away from each other. So-called ashes can be divided among family members. And there is the other practice of keeping an urn at home, postponing final disposition.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Scott Larsen

A concern I have is people wishing their bodies to be cremated then scattered to the wind or like one of my uncles, deposited in his favorite lake in north Idaho, leaving no remains behind. His wife – my aunt -later regretted this because there was no place to go to and remember him, like on Memorial Day. As one who is tracing my family through various records including cemeteries, I find those who ‘take and scatter’ leaves a big hole in tracing one’s family.

Murdoch Matthew

It was in the nineteenth century, according to Berkeley historian Thomas Laqueur, that the notion developed of the dead resting or sleeping forever in the grave. Garden cemeteries became cities of the dead, with park landscaping and elaborate monuments which made people forget the decomposed body. Fancy monuments also represented an increase of individualism and a break with the traditional Anglican churchyard, where remains were dug up and bones gathered in ossuaries. The churchyard was a space for a body to decompose but not necessarily a final resting place.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Laqueur, Thomas. “Spaces of the Dead.” Ideas from the National Humanities Center 8.2 (2001): 1-16. Web.

Eric Bonetti

Given the number of columbariums that have closed when churches of every stripe have closed in recent years, resulting in the need to transfer remains, we have something of a similar issue, I suspect.

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