Catholics and Cremation - A New Instruction from Pope Francis

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
2 Nov 2016

Fr Don Richardson, Director of the Liturgy Office,
Archdiocese of Sydney

Should Catholics cremate the dead? Fr Don Richardson, Director of the Liturgy Office of the Archdiocese of Sydney provides some reflection upon the new instruction regarding burial and cremation issued from the Vatican and recently approved by Pope Francis.

It is customary during the month of November, which begins with All Saints' Day on November 1st and All Souls' Day on November 2nd, for Catholics to pray for the dead and to visit their graves. The very ancient Christian tradition of burying the dead and praying for them is an important expression of faith the resurrection of the dead, in the integrity and goodness of the human person, body and soul , fosters an awareness of the positive meaning of death in Christ - and allows a healthy process of grieving.

With increasing numbers of Catholics around the world choosing to cremate the bodies of their deceased loved ones, Pope Francis has approved a new Instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Conservation of the Ashes in the Case of Cremation," dated 15th  August 2016 and published this week.

Cremation of the deceased person's body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, the all-powerful, from raising up the deceased's body to new life, but the Catholic Church continues to prefer the burial of the bodies of the deceased and considers burial a more fitting sign of Christian faith in the resurrection of the body. The Church has regard for the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person who through Baptism has become the temple of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, although they were for many centuries forbidden by the Church to cremate the bodies of the deceased, since 1963 Catholics have been permitted to cremate provided that this is not done as a denial of Christian beliefs or hatred of the Church as was historically often the case.

The Catholic Church considers burial a more fitting sign of Christian faith in the resurrection of the body

When cremation is chosen, the remains of the deceased should be treated with dignity and respect, in a way which affirms the Christian faith. The cremated remains - the "ashes"- of the deceased should be treated with the respect that was due the body before cremation.

The new Instruction makes it clear that the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a cemetery, a church, or a special area set aside with the blessing of the appropriate Church authority. This is the way in which the Christian tradition has upheld the relationship between the living and the dead and to keep show that, in Christ, death has a positive meaning. Through burial of the body in a grave, like the body of Jesus, Christian faith in the resurrection of the body is affirmed, the remains of the faithful are shown due respect, their family members and the whole Christian community are encouraged to pray for and remember the dead (even when the immediate generations have passed), and any unfitting or superstitious practices are prevented. Such practices as keeping the cremated remains "at home", or dividing the ashes up between several people as keepsakes, are considered incompatible with the proper reverence for the bodies of the Baptised.

Responding to certain new trends as well as age-old errors, the Instruction prohibits those ways of treating the cremated remains which are incompatible with the Christian understanding of the significance of the human body. These include rituals which suggest that bodily death is the annihilation of the person so that they no longer exist; or that death is the moment the deceased person is fused with the universe or Mother Nature; or that death is just a stage in a continuous cycle of regeneration; or that death sets us free from the body as if it were a prison and not an integral part of the human person.  For these reasons, the Instruction expressly forbids Catholics from scattering the cremated bodies of the faithful in the air, or at sea, or across the landscape or in some other way. The Church also considers the practice of turning part of the cremated remains into pieces of jewellery, mementos or other objects, to be wrong and the Instruction forbids them.

In the case of cremation the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a cemetery, a church, or blessed place

In the Catholic section of Sydney's Rookwood Cemetery there is a specially designed and blessed Crematorium Chapel of Mary, Mother of Mercy, to assist Catholics who choose cremation for valid reasons to surround the funeral and cremation rites with appropriate signs of Christian faith. But regardless of where the actual cremation is carried out, the ashes should be interred in a cemetery or other specially designated sacred place.