As cremation rates steadily increase around the world, many Catholics have questions around this practice.  Does the Church support cremation?  What are the teachings of the Church on the care of cremated remains?  In the fall of 2016, Pope Francis released an important Instruction that addresses these important topics.

Why was this Instruction Released?

The document, titled ‘Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Conservation of the Ashes in the Case of Cremation’, affirms the position of a previous document released in 1963 that stated “all necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed”, that cremation is not “opposed per se to the Christian religion”, and that sacraments and funeral rites should not be denied to those who choose cremation. This permission was incorporated into the Code of Canon Law in 1983.

Over time, secular influences have led many people, including the Catholic faithful, to engage in disposition practices of cremated remains that do not respect the sacredness of the body. Cremation is quickly becoming the ordinary choice for many of the Catholic faithful throughout the world. However, as the rate of cremation steadily increases, a number of practices “contrary to the Church’s faith have also become widespread.” It was therefore deemed an opportune time to publish a new Instruction to state the reasons for the preference of the burial of the remains of the faithful, and to set out norms pertaining to the treatment of cremated remains.

Burying the Dead – A Corporal Work of Mercy

Burying the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy in the Catholic Church. Our physical death marks the conclusion of our earthly baptismal journey and our transition into eternal life. Our Christian Catholic burial practices are an expression of our hope in the resurrection. The body is to be buried or entombed in a sacred, public place, where the grave will bear the name of the deceased – the name by which the person was baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the name that establishes the identity of the deceased as a child of God. As such, a nameless disposal of cremated remains, such as scattering or dispersing, does not reflect the sacredness of the human body, nor does it comply with the teachings of the Church.

How to Treat Cremated Remains

The practice of keeping a loved one’s cremated remains at home is also not permitted. While perhaps an initial expression of love and grief, keeping a loved one’s remains at home ultimately becomes a source of emptiness and loneliness for those holding the remains. The same holds true for those who integrate their loved one’s cremated remains into a piece of jewellery or other such keepsake. The deceased, as a member of the Body of Christ, belonged to the entire Christian community, and not only to his or her immediate family members. When the remains are buried or entombed in a sacred place, the members of the community have the opportunity to visit the tomb and pray for the deceased, therefore making tangible the vital flow of life that continues to exist between the living and the dead. The place of burial or entombment serves as a bridge between the living and the community of saints. In addition, placing the remains in a sacred place of burial “prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten or their remains from being shown a lack of respect”, particularly as time goes by and those closest to the deceased eventually pass away as well.

What if the Remains of a Loved One Were Scattered?

The Instruction offers an option for those who may have scattered or dispersed the cremated remains of a loved one. Families of the deceased are encouraged to create a place of memorialization within a sacred place, where the name of the deceased can be inscribed and visited.

The Body as a Temple of the Holy Spirit

The Catholic Church’s practice of burial goes back to early Christian days. A strong belief in the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, as well as the belief in the resurrection of the body, support the Church’s continued reverence for the human body and fosters an awareness of the positive meaning of death in Christ.

Read the complete Instruction. (link to click: ‘Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation’ – Complete Document)