The Vatican recently released a document giving instructions for burial of Catholic Christians who have chosen cremation of their body after death. The document says that cremation is permitted, but that the ashes must be buried in a sacred place, and are not to be kept at home or scattered.
The document, Ad resurgendum cum Christo, begins by reaffirming that cremation is “not ‘opposed’ per se to the Christian religion” but there is a need to underline 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.”
Drawing on holy Scripture, Canon Law, and previous documents on the issue, the Instruction explains why the Church prefers burial to cremation because “above all” it is the “most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body”, and also shows “greater esteem” towards the deceased.They must also “not be divided among various family members”, and in order to avoid “every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism”, it is not permitted to scatter the ashes “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.”
It added that if 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.”
“The burial, the last liturgy for us, is an expression of our hope for the resurrection,” Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the congregation wrote, “and therefore the Church continues to teach that the normal burial of the body is the normal form.”
As the document explains, “by burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity.”
Rather, burial in a cemetery or another sacred place “adequately corresponds to the piety and respect owed to the bodies of the faithful departed who through Baptism have become temples of the Holy Spirit and in which ‘as instruments and vessels the Spirit has carried out so many good works.’”
The Vatican originally answered the question of whether or not cremation was allowed in 1963, but with the increase in both its popularity and in practices such as scattering the ashes or keeping them in the home, it found it necessary to provide a new set of norms as guidance for bishops.
The instruction emphasized that “following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried.”
“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,” it stated.
By reserving the ashes of the deceased in a sacred place, we can be assured that they are not excluded from the prayers of their family and the Christian community, it continued, as well as provide a more permanent marker for posterity, especially after the immediately subsequent generation has passed away.