The Church and Cremation
In the latter days of summer, through much of Eastern Ontario Catholics gather in cemeteries to remember the dead, to pray and to socialize. In the fall, I will hold Sunday afternoon prayer services in our two large Ottawa burial grounds, Notre Dame Cemetery in Vanier and Hope Cemetery in Gloucester.
This communion with the death seems peculiar to Catholics and is sometimes misunderstood. Remembrance of the dead and reverence for the place of their last resting place expresses the Christian’s faith in the resurrection of the body.
Burying the body expresses the inherent dignity we wish to show to the body which was the outward expression of the human person with whom people interacted and knew while they were here in this world.
What has been changing over time are the customs and traditions of funerals, wake services and practices surrounding the deceased. In Europe and North America the frequency of cremation is one of the most significant changes. In many places, cremation outstrips burial by a large margin. The Church is concerned that some practices associated with cremation may diminish respect for the person and hope in the resurrection.
This led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to suggest recently some guidelines for in dealing with cremated remains.
Vatican officials indicated that the church continues to prefer the burial of human remains. Still, the Church permits cremation as a valid option but argues against the scattering of ashes or keeping cremated remains at home.
The Church recognizes there are legitimate reasons for cremation including sanitary, economic or social circumstances but it states that “the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority.”
While the Church recognizes that cremation itself is not in direct opposition to Catholic teaching on the soul’s immortality or the hope of the resurrection of the dead, the can be today a variety of pretenses that deny what the Church believes about death and resurrection of the dead.
The new instruction reminds the faithful to avoid public denial of the faith and “every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism.”
The Church sees that behind cremation there can lie “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 as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body.”
And so, the proper disposition of cremains are expected of the faithful because of how it reflects the Church’s faith. Cremated ashes are not to be scattered in the atmosphere or made into jewelry or keepsakes because these are not respectful of the human person’s dignity.
The burial of ashes or their reservation in a sacred place “ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community” — an essential practice of the Faith. Burying the cremains preserves the deceased’s memory and makes it easier to remember them in prayer, as well as avoids the possibility of “unfitting or superstitious practices.”
As those who have died “remain part of the Church,” the instruction presents a good reminder to Catholics that burying them in blessed ground or sacred places encourages prayer on behalf of the deceased by members of their family and the entire Christian community. Often when I visit Montreal, I drop by my parents’ grave in Notre Dame-des- Neiges cemetery to pray in gratitude for them and with them.
Significantly, the instruction maintains that when considering the Church’s teaching about those aspects of the Faith and its teaching on human dignity she “continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased.”
All of the Church’s activity surrounding death and burial practices must always proclaim the hope of the resurrection, the instruction says, going on to quote the early Church Father Tertullian who wrote “The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live.”