Cremation and the burying of the dead

In his column on page seven, Father Landry discussed all of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. He spent some extra time explaining the Catholic Church’s teaching that the Corporal Work of burying the dead does not include keeping the cremated remains of our loved ones on our mantels or in a locket or scattering them to the winds.

This Tuesday (October 25) the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released via the Vatican website (Vatican.va) an instruction entitled, “Ad resurgendum cum Christo” (“to rise with Christ” — which are the first words of the document). The subtitle gives us its focus: “Regarding the burial of the deceased
and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation.”

The first paragraph discusses when the Catholic Church allowed funerals for people who had been cremated. “With the Instruction Piam et Constantem of 5 July 1963, the then-Holy Office [now the CDF] established that ‘all necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed,’ adding however that cremation is not ‘opposed per se to the Christian religion’ and that no longer should the Sacraments and funeral rites be denied to those who have asked that they be cremated, under the condition that this choice has not been made through ‘a denial of Christian dogmas, the animosity of a secret society, or hatred of the Catholic religion and the Church.’”

The present instruction then observes that in the meantime “the practice of cremation has notably increased in many countries, but simultaneously new ideas contrary to the Church’s faith have also become widespread.” The CDF notes that after it had consulted with other Vatican departments and with bishops spread throughout the world, it “has deemed opportune the publication of a new Instruction [this one], with the intention of underlining the doctrinal and pastoral reasons for the preference of the burial of the remains of the faithful and to set out norms pertaining to the conservation of ashes in the case of cremation.”

Next the instruction discussed Christ’s Resurrection and the future resurrection of the dead. “By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection [of the dead, on the last day] God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul.”

The document then gives a beautiful explanation as to why we bury our dead. “In memory of the death, burial and Resurrection of the Lord, the mystery that illumines the Christian meaning of death, burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body. The Church who, as mother, has accompanied the Christian during his earthly pilgrimage, offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of her grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory.”

Next the CDF explains allowable cremation. “In circumstances when cremation is chosen because of sanitary, economic or social considerations, the Church raises no doctrinal objections to this practice, since cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in His omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life. Thus cremation, in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body. The Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased. Nevertheless, cremation is not prohibited, unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.”

Although cremated, the ashes are to be treated as we would a body: “The ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a Sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority. From the earliest times, Christians have desired that the faithful departed become the objects of the Christian community’s prayers and remembrance. Their tombs have become places of prayer, remembrance and reflection. The reservation of the ashes of the departed in a Sacred place ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community. It prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect, which eventuality is possible, most especially once the immediately subsequent generation has too passed away. Also it prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices.”

Given the Church’s desire that the ashes be in a place where all of the Church can remember them in prayer (this is a good reminder of how we should pray for the souls of the dead when driving by or taking a walk in a cemetery) and the concern about what would happen to human remains if left in a home, the document then decrees, “For the reasons given above, the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted. Only in grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature, may the Ordinary, in agreement with the Episcopal Conference or the Synod of Bishops of the Oriental Churches, concede permission for the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence [the news website Crux said that this was mainly for countries where Catholic cemeteries are desecrated, something not true of the U.S.A.]. Nonetheless, the ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained regarding the circumstances of such a conservation.”

The document also decrees, “In order that every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism be avoided, it is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects.”

For one’s funeral planning purposes, the last sentence of the body of the document is very important: “When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith, a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law.” In case someone might say, what would Pope Francis think of that, right afterwards it says, “The Sovereign Pontiff Francis, in the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect [of the CDF] on 18 March 2016, approved the present Instruction, adopted in the Ordinary Session of this Congregation on 2 March 2016, and ordered its publication.” By doing so, the Holy Father made the CDF’s document his own and the law of the Church. We should follow it, not just out of obedience (although we are bound to that), but also prayerfully growing in our understanding of the “resurrection of the body,” belief in which we profess every Sunday.


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