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Communal urn signifies unity, oneness.

The notion of commingling the ashes of the dead and mixing them together in a communal urn runs counter to America's burial tradition and its spirit of rugged individualism Bur it is spiritually the right way to care for human remains, argues Raymond Plankey.

Plankey, a native Vermonter who has been on loan to the church of Latin America as a lay missionary for 53 years, knows about death He and his Chilean wife. Gabrieia Videla, have buried two sons.

Nearly 50 years ago. their son Raymond was born on Good Friday and died that Easter Sunday. Their second son, David, died in a fiery accident. his Volkswagen colliding with a 30-ton trailer truck in Mexico on Pentecost Sunday some 30 years ago. David's body emerged from the wreckage so burned and broken that his grieving parents felt they had no choice but to cremate him.

Within days of David's death, Plankey reflected that had they cremated their firstborn--rather than burying the infant in Chile--they could have mixed the ashes of the brothers in the same box. It didn't take long for him to wonder--and wish--for a common family depositary where all Plankey-Videla ashes eventually could be mixed together. The couple also has two adult daughters.

"Soon it struck me," Plankey told NCR by telephone from his home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, 'each parish should have a community urn where the remains of the dead are mixed together to prophetically manifest our faith and hope that they are now in the fullness of community with God in heaven."

He believes their mortal remains should manifest this deep unity rather than the individualism and in-equality that are represented in our cemeteries, he said, by huge differences in grave markings.

Plankey's long-held desire to initiate a community burial site has finally come to life In September of last year, he helped inaugurate a communitarian urn in Cuernavaca's Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary.

The urn which has the capacity to hold the ashes of 50,000 bodies resides in the cathedral's Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows. The 16th-century church is centrally located in the city and has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of its important murals and its history as Mexico's fifth Franciscan mission.

The depositing of ashes in the cathedral urn will be accompanied by a simple and respectful community ceremony. It will take place in small groups on pre-assigned days and an official register will be kept of all persons whose ashes are deposited--both for posterity and to keep their memory alive said Plankey, who turned 80 in November.

Both ecclesial and civil authorities have welcomed the community urn, especially as there are hardly any lots left in the city of over 700,000 for depositing the dead. In Mexico City, 70 miles away--a metropolis of 22 million--in-ground burials are banned due to lack of space, unless a family already owns a plot.

Cuernavaca's Bishop Ramon Castro Castro has invited not only Catholics, but other Christians, those of other faiths and even nonbelievers to use the urn.

As Fr. Saul Medina Mondragon, director of the Office of Religious Associations in the state of Morelos, explained, "This unprecedented ecumenical initiative brought forward by the Catholic church ... is a call to collaboration so we may find solutions to the many problems our people face as we work to build a better life for all."

Plankey cited poverty and inequality as two of the region's greatest ills. In Mexico, cremations can cost as little as 4,000 pesos ($250). The cathedral charges nothing to deposit the remains into its urn, thus offering a solution for poor families, who, he said, are often plagued by worry and debt, especially at the time of death of a loved one.

Besides saving costs and space and being a hygienic means of disposing of human remains, the act of depositing our ashes into a shared urn provides "a prophetic biblical meaning by calling us to unity and oneness," Plankey said.

It also demonstrates the elimination of barriers among people by "manifesting their togetherness and community," he said. He's convinced it is the most Christian means of caring for our remains, not just the most economical.

In the two years that he worked intensely on the communitarian urn project, he thought it was a novel idea. Later, he discovered that in 2003, Jorge Bergoglio, while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, urged parishes to take up this suggestion, primarily as a help to the poor. By the time Plankey learned of communal urns in Buenos Aires, he found they existed in 50 parishes. And Bergoglio was now Pope Francis.

Plankey, who first went to Chile as a papal volunteer at the time of the Second Vatican Council and stayed on as a lay missionary, said he's grateful to Francis for again calling the church to be open to the needs of the modern world and the workings of the Holy Spirit.

He's observed the Holy Spirit's presence in his own life and thinks it's no coincidence that both his sons died on such prominent feast days as Pentecost and Easter.

"I believe this communitarian urn was inspired by the Holy Spirit," he said. "All we need is to break old habits, like burial being the only alternative pleasing to God, and move with the Holy Spirit or 'the signs of the times.'... We can choose the best solution even if it means differing with traditional culture."

Related Article: Culture and the care of the dead.

Will the idea of communal urns take hold in the United States? Social historian Thomas Laqueur found the urn in Cuernavaca, Mexico, "a beautiful idea for burying the dead together. ... It's lovely and novel," the University of California, Berkeley history professor told NCR.

In late September, Laqueur published The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains. In his engaging 700-page tome, he observes that for as long as people have discussed the subject, care of the dead has been regarded as foundational--of religion, of the tribe, of the clan, of the capacity to mourn, of the finitude of life, of civilization itself.

Laqueur claims that the work of the dead is to make culture and set the boundaries of our mortality. During the Middle Ages, the churchyard came into being as the dominant resting place of the dead, he said, causing the medieval church to produce an elaborate theology to explain why the bodies of "the special dead--saints--deserved extraordinary attention and why it was advantageous for the ordinary dead to be buried near them."

By the 10th century, every church had a reliquary in the churchyard with the community gathering round the relics, he said. Only in recent decades have cemeteries been built away from churches on suburban, rural and urban plots. As city populations increased, so too did the pressure upon urban cemeteries.

Cremation became an option to burial in the 1870s when the necessary machinery for it was developed. However, the church criticized the practice--not for doctrinal reasons, Laqueur said, but mainly because the cremation societies promoting it were antichurch and anti-religion.

The 1917 Code of Canon Law, which condemned cremation and demanded burial, gave way to changes by the Holy Office in 1963 and later by a new canon in the revised 1983 code allowing cremation. Today, an estimated one-third of all deaths in the United States end with cremation of the human remains.

"The dead body still matters for communities," Laqueur said, whether it's entombed in a metropolitan or rural graveyard or deposited in a communal urn in Cuernavaca or Buenos Aires.

--Patricia Lefevere

[Patricia Lefevere is a longtime NCR contributor.]

Caption: A fresco in the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary n Cuernavaca Mexico

--Newscome/ Langer

Caption: Raymond Plankey

--CNS/David Agren

Caption: Thomas Laqueur


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Title Annotation:SPIRITUALITY
Author:Lefevere, Patricia
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Jul 15, 2016
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