Who remembers their Latin? “To rise with Christ” This beautiful phrase encompasses in so many ways the goal of our lives and the teaching of our Catholic faith. To rise with Christ, we must die with Christ: we must “be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). This phrase also begins the new “Instruction regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation” released on October 25 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This document provides clarification regarding the Church’s teaching on cremation and burial. Many people are unaware of the Church’s historical teaching on cremation – dating from the early times of our growing religion when the Church opposed cremation because it was being chosen in open denial of our belief in the resurrection, and because of its historical ties to the persecution and death of our martyrs; to 1963 when the Church said that cremation was “not opposed per se to the Christian religion”; to 1983 when the practice was addressed in Canon Law and given ritual form in the Order of Christian Funerals.
The new Instruction echoes the Church’s teaching regarding cremation as presented in 1963: 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.
But it goes further in its teaching of how to care for the bodily remains following cremation: the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted … the ashes may not be divided among various family members … 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.
Is this a new teaching? No, this has always been the Church’s position, but it has not, until now, been so clearly spelled out. The document notes that “the practice of cremation has notably increased in many countries, but simultaneously new ideas contrary to the Church’s faith have also become widespread.” And so this instruction is in response to some of these ideas which do not fully represent the beauty of our belief in the resurrection, our understanding that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, that the burial of the dead is a Corporal Work of Mercy, and that prayer for the dead and those who mourn them is a Spiritual Work of Mercy.
What impact should this Instruction have on us today? If you are planning ahead for funeral, cremation, or cemetery services, this provides a framework for your decisions. The Catholic Cemeteries have multiple options for the placement of cremated remains: in existing family plots, in cremation graves, in niches, or in family columbaria. They also offer a variety of price levels and payment terms to suit an individual circumstance. If you have already scattered or divided the cremated remains of a loved one and are concerned about what this Instruction says, the Catholic Cemeteries can offer some comfort. There are many options available to memorialize a loved one, whether on an existing family headstone, on a memorial plaque, or something similar. The Instruction emphasizes that “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”. [from the Catechism of the Catholic Church 962] This is the clear purpose of the Instruction: to remind us of the importance of remembering and praying for the dead; to honor the remains, legacies, and memories of our loved ones; and above all to proclaim the great hope of our faith tradition: indeed, “ad resurgendem cum Christo”.