Vatican Issues a Timely Reminder on Cremation

COMMENTARY: Because Christ is our model, ‘by burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body.’

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Burial, rather than cremation, remains the preferred method of treating the deceased body of a Christian, the Vatican reminded Catholics Oct. 25.

Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo (“To Rise With Christ”), an “instruction regarding the burial of the deceased” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), was dated Aug. 15 and made public just days before November, the month when Catholics especially focus on the faithful departed. Pope Francis approved the document March 18.

The document reminds us that, in 1963, the CDF (then called the “Holy Office”) modified the Church’s discipline that denied funeral rites to those who were cremated. While clearly expressing a preference for “the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed,” it allowed a Catholic funeral for those who were cremated, provided they did not resort to cremation out of “a denial of Christian doctrines, the animosity of a secret society, or hatred of ... the Church” (1). That change was later incorporated into the Codes of Canon Law of both the Eastern and Western Churches.

The Church opposed cremation because, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was typically resorted to by people intent on denying the Church’s teaching about the resurrection of the body. By 1963, however, such motivations had waned. In countries where land was scarce or fears of a population explosion great (a major obsession in the 1960s), cremation was considered a legitimate alternative.

Why does the Church prefer earth burial? The answer is: the Resurrection. Christ’s rising from the dead is the center of Christian faith. It is an “essential part” of the Paschal Mystery. In baptism, we are buried with Christ in the hope of resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was no private reward for Christ: It is the “first fruits” of our own resurrection on the Last Day.

What began in Christ was no one-off event, but a process destined to encompass all humanity. It is noteworthy that this instruction is dated Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption, a day that marks Mary’s being taken bodily into heaven.

Because Christ is our model, “by burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body” (3). At the same time, it does so not just in imitation of Christ, important as that is, but to remind us that the Church “intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person” (3).

The body is sacred, the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” It is not something below the “person.” It is not a tool or attachment of the “person.” We are never “vegetables,” even if we are severely and even permanently disabled. Body and soul make the person.

But ours is an age prone to equate the person with consciousness. This is due in no small measure to Rene Descartes: “I think; therefore, I am.” But important as self-awareness is, it does not exhaust the whole person. If that were true, we would cease to exist every time we went to sleep!

Finally, Ad Resurgendum reminds us of the Communion of Saints. The Church encompasses this world and the next: earth, purgatory and heaven — all those in love with God. Cemeteries remind us of our human togetherness as well as our duty to pray for the dead: “Through the practice of burying the dead in cemeteries, in churches or in their environs, Christian Tradition has upheld the relationship between the living and the dead” (3).

The new document recognizes that, in the half-century since 1963, new ideas have shaped our culture, sometimes in the direction of a culture of death. The instruction warns against those trends.

The Church cannot “condone attitudes 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 a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body” (3).

Now, not too many people who call themselves Catholics think of death as “definitive annihilation.” People are prone, instead, to an incomplete version of the afterlife, some fuzzy “going into the light,” rather than all the lights going out.

Pantheism, however, is alive and well, usually in some hazy “spirituality” that imagines the dead fusing with the world, a kind of “green” environmentalism gone wild. The Church reminds us that human beings — although they are creatures — are qualitatively different from the rest of the world, over which they are to exercise “dominion.” People are not overgrown monkeys. As Wesley Smith once wrote, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy” is nonsense.

Syncretistic “spirituality” also leads to ideas of reincarnation, which holds that people come back in another life according to deeds. But if our deeds are never fixed, neither is who we are. And if our identity can never be settled, we also can never be free.

The document admits that, as long as our motives are not wrong, cremation can be chosen for “sanitary, economic or social considerations” (4). Catholics are warned, however, never to cremate a loved one contrary to the wishes of the departed.

It also reminds us that ashes should be preserved “in a sacred place” (5), either buried or placed in a columbarium. Even in death, a Christian is part of the Christian community and needs its prayers. It also ensures respect for those remains, “most especially once the immediately subsequent generation has ... passed away” (5). The instruction is explicit: “... the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted” (6). [A limited exception is carved out for bishops, in agreement with the episcopal conference, to “concede permission” to keep ashes in a house in “grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature.” In no case should ashes be divided among relatives; this is disrespect for the dead and the integrity of their remains]. Loved ones belong in a cemetery, not on a coffee table.

Lastly, scattering ashes “in the air, on land, [or] at sea” is explicitly forbidden, nor should human remains be turned into jewelry. People — even dead people — are not pendants. The instruction denies burial rites for those who “requested cremation and the scattering of ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith” (8).

As a contemporary restatement of Church teaching, Ad Resurgendum is timely, given the growing resort, even among Catholics, to cremation. Its effectiveness, however, will rest on effective catechesis about the dignity of the human body, destined for resurrection. November might be a good time for that homiletic catechesis.

John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., is a theologian who writes from Falls Church, Virginia.