When Manhattan resident Joseph Nuzzi’s father passed away in 2012, his expressed wish was to be cremated, despite having grown up Catholic at a time when burial was a requirement of the faith. His son, a Catholic official, carried out his request.
The cremation, which followed a traditional wake, is an example of how death rituals are evolving in a city where funerals can be a huge financial burden and burial space is becoming increasingly scarce.
Nuzzi, a pastoral associate and director of evangelization at St. Francis Assisi Church in midtown Manhattan, does not know why his father wanted to be cremated. But he said he sees a big trend in Catholic New Yorkers wanting to cremate their dead, along with other changes to traditional Catholic death rituals.
Catholics make up a third of New York City’s population, the city’s largest religious affiliation. Catholic tradition prescribes three steps after an individual passes away: the wake (or vigil) before the funeral, which is typically held at the funeral home (often with the body present), the funeral Mass at the church, and the burial.
But modern life in New York City has caused many Catholics to opt for cremating their dead and burying the ashes in a columbarium, a building included in many Catholic cemeteries to accommodate cremated remains. Though the Catholic Church’s ban on cremation was lifted by the Vatican in 1963, Nuzzi said the practice did not become mainstream in the New York City area until around 20 years ago.
“(Cremation) does affect the rituals. Sometimes there is no wake. At times people might just have the funeral Mass,” said Nuzzi.
Skipping the wake can save a family thousands of dollars, as the body would not need to be embalmed and body transportation costs can be spared. Sometimes families choose to do the wake before the cremation, allowing an opportunity for friends and family to view the body. Cremation also allows families to substitute a later memorial service for a funeral, so that key family members who may not live in the area can attend.
The adaptation of these traditions has the effect of drawing out the mourning process. Despite such adaptations, Nuzzi feels that rituals are still needed for the living.
“I think people need to adapt the old rituals (to modern life in New York),” he said. “To not mark it is not a healthy way to deal with the mourning process.” — Suman Bhattacharyya