Liu Xiaobo’s death and scattering ashes

Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate and renowned dissident Liu Xiaobo died on 13th July from multiple organ failure after he was refused permission to leave the country for treatment.

Mr Liu, a prominent participant in the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests of 1989, was jailed for eleven years in 2009  for ‘inciting subversion of state power’ after helping to write a petition known as Charter 08 which called for sweeping political reforms.

The ashes of Liu Xiaobo were scattered at sea a few days later in a move described by a family member as ‘an effort to erase any memory of him’. One close friend of Liu Xiaobo claimed that the sea burial as an attempt to make sure that there was ‘nothing to remember him by on Chinese soil’.

Many others voiced rage and disgust after the announcement that Liu Xiaobo’s ashes had been cast into the ocean off north-eastern China in a hastily arranged sea burial because they believe it was ‘designed to deny supporters a place of pilgrimage’.

‘An effort to erase any memory of him’; ‘nothing to remember him by’; ‘designed to deny supporters a place of pilgrimage’.

Yet, when in November 2016 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo (To rise with Christ) said that it was not permissible for the ashes of the deceased to be scattered at sea, citing precisely these same reasons, the reaction from many was to say that Rome was out of touch and insensitive.

The document reminded the faithful that cremated remains should be treated with the same respect given to the corporeal remains of a human body, meaning that, when the family is given the ashes later, they are reverently interred in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium.

To rise with Christ explains that a tomb or grave becomes a place to visit, a special location for prayer and remembrance. Having such a place is an important part of the mourning and grieving process that makes us human beings and for this reason ‘it is not permitted to scatter ashes in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way’.

In other words, the danger of scattering someone’s ashes at sea or elsewhere is that 'any memory of that person will be erased', leaving ‘nothing to remember them by’ and that friends, family and others will be 'denied a place of pilgrimage’ – precisely the objection raised by Liu Xiaobo’s family and supporters to the scattering of his ashes at sea.

Does this difference of approach suggest that our response to a group or a person is influenced not by what is said but by our prejudices?

I can’t help wondering how differently critics of To rise with Christ might have reacted if it had been issued after people had heard about the response of family, friends and followers to the scattering of Liu Xiaobo’s ashes at sea.


Elizabeth Harrington