Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Not to get morbid, by any means, but yesterday’s look at dust tempted me to look more closely at a close relative of that, as in “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The phrases is too well known to need much explanation, but its source is interesting. No, it doesn’t come from the King James version of the Bible, or at least not word-for-word. The phrase appears in the Book of Common Prayer. Ashes and dust, however, are linked in three Old Testament verses (Genesis 18:27, Job 30:19, Job 42:6) and always in the same context. That’s what we—or at least our physical we’s—are.

Much of my adult life I spent in the study of technology. Today’s noodling reminded me once more that no subject is exhaustible. I discovered a technology I’d never heard of before, cremulation. It is the final stage of cremation. After bodies are burned in refractory-brick-lined retorts—using, these days, natural gas and propane; we’re energy-consuming even as corpses!—what remains is bone fragments and ash. If the corpse had a pace-maker installed, it is first removed. It has been found that such a device can produce explosions that damage the furnace: a clash of technologies. The remains are then gathered and ground to a powder in the cremulator. It is just a grinder, of course, but interesting to note that after we’ve long fled this vale of tears, the grind keeps going on.

So what is left? Wikipedia’s article on this subject (link) tells me, citing and article in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, that adult women leave on average a residue weighing 4 pounds, men 6 pounds. So much for our average gravitas.

I might use this occasion to note that Catholicism permits cremation but evidently with a great lack of enthusiasm. The grounds for this arise from the Christian view of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit and belief in the resurrection of the body. The Church lifted the ban on cremation in 1963. Certain restriction apply. The funeral mass must be held with the body present; cremation may then follow. The Church frowns on such practices as scattering the ashes and holds that these must be interred. For more, see this article from the American Catholic (link).

The largest Catholic Church near us is St. Paul on the Lake. On its grounds resides a quite extensive columbarium  (link). That word means dove-cote, and columbaria have small niche-sized but sealed places where ashes are held. That columbarium is a favorite destination for Brigitte and me, the weather permitting. We sit on benches there, silence all around us, surrounded by the ashes of those departed.

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