Dear Sister Sunday

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Polish Catholic cemetary

Dear Sister Sunday,

Our mother is dying and my five siblings and I are split about what to do with her body. My oldest sister, who has born most of the burden these last months, says Mom wants to be cremated. My brother, who’s the youngest, says Mom is just trying to save money so we’ll have more to share when she dies. He’s very opposed to cremation and points out that our father wasn’t cremated. We got together at the nursing home where Mom is in hospice care last night to talk. Those of us who live nearby were at the home. The others joined us on Skype. The discussion did not end well. There were tears and harsh words and one of our siblings stormed out. Another has threatened to drag Mom into it. We’re Catholics (well, some of us, but we were all raised Catholic). Mom is a devout Catholic. Please help. We need some peace.


Middle Child in the Middle


Dear Middle, 

It’s hard to lose a parent. Even if your mother is old and sick and ready to die, it’s difficult for her children to let go. I know. So, first, let me say that you have my sympathy.

The good news is that the Catholic Church allows either option.

You can expect heightened emotions at a time like this. You’re all sad. You each want to do the right thing. And each child has a particular relationship with your mother, and some of those relationships may be turbulent, even now, or especially now. If problems or misunderstanding haven’t been resolved, they may surface under other headings. Mental health professionals call this “misplaced anger.” You might not be able to say that you still feel cheated because Mom had two difficult pregnancies and two babies and so wasn’t available to cheer you on when you were winning all those swim meets, or when you weren’t winning any swim meets. It sounds childish to say, so you turn that hurt onto something else, like the question of cremation versus full body burial, something you can pour a lot of heat into without looking foolish.

Or a child who feels pushed out by the sibling who took over much of my your mother’s care may feel left out and want to take the lead here.

So understand that the conflict over cremation versus full body burial may not really be about that at all.

Whatever the family dynamics, you do have some decisions to make. If your mother is able to talk with you about it, ask her. She knows she is dying and probably does have some wishes about how her funeral and burial. (And learn from this experience. Write down your own wishes and leave the document where someone can locate it after your death). Try to have as many siblings as are willing, and able, to join the conversation. It may be that your sister is exactly right about your mother’s wishes. It would be helpful to write down your mother’s wishes as she expresses them.  It’s also worth it to do some sleuthing and see if you can’t find something about her funeral and burial that your mother wrote down — maybe after her husband’s death — then stuck in a drawer and forgot.

trappist made box for cremated remains

Be sure you’re talking to her priest about the funeral rites and burial. The good news is that the Catholic Church allows either option. (But if one of your siblings wants to divide Mom’s ashes among you or scatter them at Yosemite, you have a problem. That’s one of the reasons the priest is there, to speak and take the heat so you don’t have to). It is true that the preferred option remains full body burial, and that, even in the cases where cremation is chosen (and the bishops acknowledge that financial considerations are often cited as a reason for choosing cremation), the preference is for the body to be present during the funeral and for the cremation to take place after the funeral. But cremation is allowed. You can go to the website for the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference, usccb.org, type in the word “cremation” and find the current teaching. Send the link to all the siblings so that issue, at least, can be taken off the crowded family table.

Try to remember that, over and above any of these concerns, your mother’s chief concern is surely that you love one another, forgive one another and support one another. So honor that, and don’t worry too much about picking a winning or losing side of this debate.

Saint Joseph, pray for us.
Comfort of the troubled, pray for us.
Hope of the sick, pray for us.
Patron of the dying, pray for us.
Terror of evil spirits, pray for us.

Blessings to you all,

Sister Sunday