Q-and-A on instruction on proper handling of ashes following cremation

IMAGE: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz


WASHINGTON (CNS) — In 1963, the
Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an instruction
permitting cremation as long as it was not done as a sign of denial of the
basic Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead.

The permission was incorporated
into the Code of Canon Law in 1983 and the Code of Canons of the Eastern
Churches in 1990.

However, Cardinal Gerhard
Muller, prefect of the congregation, told reporters Oct. 25 that church law had
not specified exactly what should be done with “cremains,” and
several bishops’ conferences asked the congregation to provide guidance.

That request led to “Ad
resurgendum cum Christo” (“To Rise With Christ”), an instruction
“regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in
the case of cremation,” issued Oct. 25. The document was approved by Pope
Francis after consultation with other Vatican offices and with bishops’
conferences and the Eastern churches’ synods of bishops.

Release of the new document has prompted
many Catholics to ask whether it changes any regulations about cremation. Catholic
News Service provided some of those questions to the staff of the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Divine Worship to have them

Q.: The new document from the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) spells out regulations
regarding cremation. Does it change anything in how the Catholic Church in this
country has regulated this issue?

A.: No, the new document from
the CDF doesn’t change anything for us in this country. For example, we already
have permission to have a funeral Mass in the presence of cremated remains.
What the Instruction does do, however, is reiterate the church’s preference for
the burial of the body in normal circumstances, and, when cremation is
necessary, its insistence that the remains be properly interred.

Q.: If the document says that
traditional burial is preferred, does that mean cremation is wrong?

A: If the church saw cremation as
“wrong,” it wouldn’t permit it! Sometimes cremation can truly be necessary.
However, the ancient custom and the preference of the church is to bury the
body, whenever possible.

Q.: What should I do if I’ve
already scattered the ashes?

A.: We can’t change the past, of
course, and if you truly didn’t realize at that time that it shouldn’t be done,
then you shouldn’t burden yourself with guilt. Remember that what happens to a
person’s body after death has no bearing on what happens when that person’s
soul meets the Lord on judgment day. However, you might wish to offer extra prayers
for the person’s happy repose.

Q.: If I plan to donate my body
to science, after which it will be cremated, is that OK? What if the laboratory
disposes of these ashes?

A.: This would seem to be a
valid reason for cremation. However, it would be important to make sure that
arrangements are made for a funeral Mass, and that a trusted relative or friend
is able to receive the remains and see to their proper burial.

Q.: How do I convince my dad to
let me bury my mother’s ashes, which he now has at home?

A.: Only you would know the best
way to approach a situation like that, and it would depend a lot on his reasons
for keeping the remains and on his own personal faith. Perhaps making him aware
of the church’s preference would be enough to convince him? Or the assurance
that his own earthly remains will one day be buried alongside those of his
wife? Also, the Vatican’s instruction itself articulates some compelling
reasons: “The reservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place
ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of the
Christian community. It prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or
their remains from being shown a lack of respect'” (n. 5).

Q.: Entombment of ashes is
expensive; is there any ‘consecrated ground or consecrated place’ where
Catholics can place ashes for free?

A.: That would vary from place
to place. There have been some Catholic dioceses and cemeteries that have even
organized special opportunities for the interment of cremated remains for no
cost at all, just as a way to encourage people who might have been keeping the
remains without a good idea of what to do with them. You might wish to bring
this question to the office of your local bishop — the people who assist him
might be able to help you find an appropriate place, particularly if the
expense is an important factor.

Q.: “I am afraid I did something
wrong. When my daughter died, I could
not afford to bury her, but I had her cremated and her ashes will be buried
with me. I also had some ashes put in crosses for her kids. I am distressed I
did something very wrong.”

A.: Clearly you did that with
good intentions, and weren’t aware of what the church wants us to do with the
mortal remains of our loved ones, so you shouldn’t burden yourself with guilt
over this. Would it be possible now to find a cemetery plot where you can bury
her remains, and make arrangements so that your own remains can someday go into
the same location? If at all possible, the ashes in the crosses should also be
buried or interred along with them.

Q.: Many people die and are
never buried properly. Perhaps they die at sea or in an explosion or whatever.
Why is the Vatican worried about something like this when there are so many
other problems in the world?

A.: This instruction isn’t
concerned with those kinds of situations. Burial at sea is necessary at times,
as is cremation. The main purpose for this instruction is to help foster a
healthy respect for the human body, even after death, especially in light of
the move in recent years away from traditional burial in favor of more
expedient and economical means. Where contemporary culture today may well
question what difference it makes, the church is reminding us to recall that
the human body is an integral part of the human person deserving of respect even
after death. The earliest Christians buried the bodies of their dead, and this
set them apart from many of their contemporaries. We bury our dead out of
reverence for God our creator, and as a sign that we look forward to the
resurrection on the last day.

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Editor’s Note: The English text
of the instruction can be found at:

The Spanish text is here:

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