Church, military granted leeway for ceremony
By Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 07/23/99
The cremated remains of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, and her sister were cast from a warship to the ocean currents in a manner not favored by the Catholic Church and in a ceremony that occurred only after the intercession of Pentagon brass.
The Roman Catholic Church prefers the presence of a body at its funeral rites. And the Defense Department rarely accords the honor of burial at sea to civilians. But it acceded to the request by family members, who said Kennedy had expressed a wish for such a ceremony.
The burial for the 35th president's son was carried out with a level of privacy he rarely achieved in life. The remains of Kennedy, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, and Lauren Bessette were returned to the ocean not far from where the plane crashed last Friday night.
''The church does not encourage the scattering of cremated remains,'' said the Reverend James A. Wiseman, an associate theology professor at Catholic University in Washington D.C. ''The normal thing is to place the ashes somewhere where they can be regularly honored.''
Church officials said that while many Catholics believe that cremation violates the belief in the resurrection of the body, the practice has been permitted since 1963 when church law was revised.
''Cremation today in the Catholic Church is not forbidden; it is tolerated and it is becoming increasingly more common,'' said Lawrence Cunningham, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. ''The identification of cremation with unbelief has passed from the scene.''
Early Christian belief held that cremation was a pagan practice, an implied way of expressing contempt for the notion of the Resurrection, a central tenet of Catholicism.
''This was John Kennedy Jr.'s expressed wishes and the church wants to honor the wishes of the dead unless they're contrary to ethics and good taste,'' said Thomas Groome, professor at Boston College's Institute of Religion, Education and Pastoral Ministry. ''The ocean has always been a striking metaphor for the presence of God.''
The US National Conference of Catholic Bishops' guidelines for cremation say the ashes ''should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come.'' The guidelines do not allow for the scattering of ashes, calling instead for ''the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes,'' which should be buried or entombed.
It was not clear how the ashes were dealt with during yesterday's ceremony.
If the cremation was unusual, the burial at sea was even more so, as Pentagon officials estimated that just 1 percent to 2 percent of burials at sea are accorded to civilians. And while there is a rich history of maritime burials and a strict military procedure for how they should be carried out, the USS Briscoe, a 9,200-ton destroyer, was hosting a civilian service yesterday.
''The ceremony that they had for those three was not a military burial at sea ceremony,'' said Ensign Kim Brasel, a Navy spokeswoman. ''It was on a Navy ship, but all the Navy provided was the ship. How the ceremony was carried out was determined by the families.''
The Pentagon said two Navy Roman Catholic chaplains and a civilian priest officiated at the ceremony, which was approved by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen after a request by Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
The Defense Department said eligibility for burial at sea is reserved for active or retired members of the uniformed services, their dependents, some civilians supporting military operations, and others whose service to the nation makes them eligible. Kennedy, the Pentagon said, fell into that final category, citing his work with the President's Commission on Mental Retardation and the Profile in Courage Award.
Except in time of war, burial at sea occurs rarely. As spelled out in Navy guidelines, it includes a firing squad, a chaplain, an honor platoon, and a bugler. It begins with a reading from Scriptures.
''Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord, hear my voice,'' the Catholic service begins.
This story ran on page A9 of the Boston Globe on 07/23/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.