Prayer and Worship Office

The Recent Vatican Instruction Concerning Burial and Cremation

There has been some considerable recent coverage in the media about the Vatican issuing “new” rules concerning funeral practices, most especially how the cremated remains of loved ones are to be treated. The document, or instruction, called Ad resurgendum cum Christo, approved by Pope Francis, has been issued ahead of All Souls’ Day on 2nd November and the month of November when we remember, in a special way, all our faithful departed.

In many ways, the document and its contents are not really new at all, but rather wish to clarify matters and come as a response to the increase in cremations in many parts of the world, as well as to address some pastoral situations and questions. As the instruction states, the document has “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.” In fact, back in 1963, permission was granted for Catholics to be cremated, provided that this was not to show a rejection of Catholic beliefs in the resurrection of the body. The recent instruction repeats current customs and liturgical practice and takes into account the provisions and rites for cremation that has been part of our Order of Christian Funerals for a number of years and to some degree also present in the canons of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. The Instruction makes very clear that the practice of cremation does not, in itself, negate our faith in the resurrection of the body. “Cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from rising 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.”

A particular clarification is given concerning how cremated remains are to be interred. It is true that the Catholic Church has always stressed that the mortal remains of those who have died should be treated with great reverence and also that they should be interred. Again, the instruction simply repeats this when it states that “following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places. 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.” In our funeral rites, for example, the cremated remains of a loved one should be treated with the same respect and reverence as a body placed in a casket and that, similarly, those remains should be buried.

The document also gives us a useful and timely reminder about our faith, as Catholic Christians, in the resurrection, but also of our understanding of the human person as both soul and body; as well as emphasizing our calling, our purpose and our destiny. As the document states: “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. She cannot, therefore, condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the “prison” of the body.” The Instruction also makes the point that the burial of our dead, whether they have been cremated or in placed in a casket, can be very much part of the grieving process and additionally can help to strengthen our memory and ties with those who have gone before us. Furthermore, it can remind us of our shared faith and our shared experience of loss. “The burial of the faithful departed in cemeteries or other sacred places encourages family members and the whole Christian community to pray for and remember the dead, while at the same time fostering the veneration of martyrs and saints. 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.”

Having laid out an understanding of our faith and having reflected upon the nature of grieving and remembering, the Instruction finishes by applying all this to two, particular situations, namely the keeping of ashes in a domestic residence and the scattering of ashes. For all the reasons mentioned above, the Instruction concludes that the keeping of the ashes of a deceased loved one in a domestic residence or the scattering of ashes cannot be permitted. It goes on to state that: “only in grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature, may the Ordinary‚Ķconcede permission for the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence. Nonetheless, 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.”