Priests puzzle over double burial

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Two parishes in a rural English diocese are facing a tricky theological and legal problem: how can a woman be buried in two places at once?

To spare the feelings of the family involved, the parishes wish to remain anonymous, but the priests involved were approached by two sisters, whose mother had recently died and been cremated with a funeral service. Both sisters, who live some distance apart, wished to be able easily to visit their mother's ashes. After some thought, they concluded that the best way to manage this was to have half the ashes buried in each church.

The two priests agreed, and the services will be held simultaneously on Saturday; but the solution ran into a host of legal and theological difficulties when one of the priests asked for advice on the Internet as to what prayers he should use. The resurrection of half a body seemed a tricky proposition.

A round of phone calls to the Church of England's liturgical committee produced confusing results. One member, the Bishop of Portsmouth, Dr Kenneth Stevenson, said: "In England I don't think she can be divided in half, but that is because of legal issues rather than theological ones. The burial of cremated remains has to be registered and certified ... She could be sprinkled. But sprinkling ashes is quite separate from burial."

There is a service for the burial of Christian ashes: it refers to "the cremated remains". Dr Stevenson suggests that the liturgical solution is to omit the definite article and bury "cremated remains", rather than "the cremated remains".

However, he said, the real problem is theological. A belief in the resurrection of the body is a way of asserting the unity of a person: that human beings are both body and soul. Separating the parts of the body suggests that only the spirit matters, which is not Christian orthodoxy. It can be done: early Christians had to confront the difficulties which arose when a martyr was eaten by several wild beasts. But there is a clear Christian preference for a body to be kept in one piece.

The Bishop of Worcester, the Right Rev Philip Goodrich, said he was opposed to the idea in principle. He felt the sprinkling of ashes was a form of paganism, and not a Christian rite. "I think it should be discouraged because it is really a bit superstitious. It would be better for the ashes to be buried in one place and think of the dead as being among the unnumbered multitude of Heaven."