During the month of November, we take time in remembering the souls of the faithful departed (the “Church Suffering”). All Souls’ Day, a special time set apart to pray for the deceased, is a feast that was celebrated by Benedictine monks in France that dates back over a thousand years. It was the result of a direct tie-in with the Feast of All Saints (celebrating the “Church Triumphant”) that has been celebrated on the first day of November for an even longer time. In order to have a better understanding of some of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the care of the remains of the faithful departed, I now offer the most recent instructions on cremation from the Vatican, with the approval of Pope Francis.
“Through the practice of burying the dead in cemeteries, in churches or their environs, Christian tradition has upheld the relationship between the living and the dead and has opposed any tendency to minimize, or relegate to the purely private sphere, the event of death and the meaning it has for Christians.
In circumstances when cremation is chosen because of sanitary, economic or social considerations, this choice must never violate the explicitly stated or the reasonably inferred wishes of the deceased faithful. The Church raises no doctrinal objections to this practice, since cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his/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.” In the absence of motives contrary to Christian doctrine, the Church, after the celebration of the Funeral Rite, accompanies the choice of cremation, providing the relevant liturgical and pastoral directives, and taking particular care to avoid every form of scandal or the appearance of religious indifferentism.
When, for legitimate motives, cremation of the body has been chosen, 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 that has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent Church 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 faithful departed remain part of the Church who believes in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church.
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 also passed away. Also it prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices.
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 (Bishop) concede permission for the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence. Likewise, the ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained regarding the circumstances of such a conservation.
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. These courses of action cannot be legitimized by an appeal to the sanitary, social, or economic motives that may have occasioned the choice of cremation.
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.”
I hope that this clears up any misconceptions about our Catholic Church teaching regarding the proper disposal of the remains of the faithful departed.
“Grant eternal rest to the faithful departed, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them forever.”