The tiny southern Belgian region of Wallonia has made world headlines for blocking a trade deal between the EU and Canada, concerning 545 million potential beneficiaries. On 9 November 2016 the regional Walloon Parliament in Namur will be debating a much more local issue, how to decendly dispose of the ashes of the 15,000 Walloons who are cremated each year. In the unparalleled complexity of the Belgian federal set-up, legislation on funerals, cremation and burials are deemed a “regional competence”.
An anomaly in the current Walloon law has resulted in extremely undignified treatement of human remains, with urns frequently being found thrown into rubbish dumps. This debasing of human dignity is almost certainly a direct consequence for the gradual cheapening of human life in Belgium over the last decade since the legalisation of euthanasia, now allowed for children and healthy persons, and deemed to be a ‘right’.
The relevant Walloon legislation allows for the ashes of the deceased to be scattered over the ground following the cremation ceremony. However, many families keep the urn of their departed loved one in their home for a period before deciding that they would prefer to inhume the remains. As the law refers to ‘consecutive’ dispersal, it is effectively illegal to have recourse to such facilities as “Les Arbres du Souvenir” (Trees of Memory) in the Walloon forest, which offers the bereaved the possibility to “experience mourning differently” by scattering their relative’s ashes over the forest floor, unless this is arranged immediately after cremation.
Three well-meaning MPs in the Walloon Parliament have tabled an amendment to the law to provide for cases where families change their mind about keeping the urn at home or indeed where family members ‘inherit’ the urns of deceased relatives and don’t want to keep them. No doubt, such a change in the law is necessary in order to avoid the scandalous lack of respect with which human remains are sometimes treated in Belgium. However, the root of the problem goes much deeper. If a whole society considers that its citizens have a ‘right to die’ at a time and in a manner of their choosing, it is impossible to sensitise them to the idea that human remains should not be tipped into a public waste facility.