A fire department was dispatched recently after reports of heavy smoke in National City, California, not far from Catholic Answers headquarters. The first responders discovered that the smoke came from a local crematorium and contained human cremains. A furnace door had not been properly secured during a cremation, and the deceased’s remains ended up becoming pollution over the city.
Mishaps of this type are fortunately rare, but we often receive questions about how to respond to situations in which family members or friends treat the remains of deceased loved ones in ways not in keeping with the Church’s requirements for fit disposition of the human body. A few recent examples:
- A man wanted to know if he and his wife could keep their baby son’s cremains in their home until they relocated to another state at some future point.
- A woman received a vial of her father’s ashes from her mother, who had given each of her children a “share.” What should this daughter do with the vial?
- When her adult son died, a mother faced a “custody battle” with her ex-husband over the young man’s cremains. The father wanted a “share” of the cremains so he could bury them in a distant state.
In 2016, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo, an instruction on burial and cremation. Although the Holy Office, predecessor to the CDF, had permitted cremation for Catholics in 1963, the CDF noted that “During the intervening years, the practice of cremation has notably increased in many countries, but simultaneously new ideas contrary to the Church’s faith have also become widespread.”
The CDF reaffirmed the Church’s preference for burial of the body in a sacred place, noting that such arrangements are the most fitting for the human person, who we have faith will be raised from the dead on the last day:
Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places. . . . The Church who, as Mother, has accompanied the Christian during his earthly pilgrimage, offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of her grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory (ARCC 3).
The prior permission that was granted for cremation was reaffirmed, so long as it’s not chosen as a means of rejecting Christian doctrine. The CDF added that cremation shouldn’t be chosen if the deceased indicated a preference for burial (ARCC 4). Cremains should be buried in a sacred place, such as a cemetery or a church set aside for that purpose (ARCC 5).
Regarding certain “new ideas” on treatment of the human body, such as those we were asked about, the CDF gave guidance:
- You may not keep ashes in your house. Under most circumstances, “conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted,” although permission can be granted by the local ordinary “in grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature.”
- You may not split them up. “Ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained regarding the circumstances of such a conservation” [in a domestic residence, when permission is granted].
- You may not scatter them in the ocean, glue them into a necklace, or use them to fertilize a tree. “In order that every appearance of pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism be avoided, it is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects” (ARCC 6-7).
The guidance from the Church is clear enough, but how can Catholics share this information with family and friends at a time when people are often overwhelmed by grief or caught in disputes over what the deceased may have wanted?
First of all, these discussions ought to take place before the time comes for making burial arrangements. If you have elderly or seriously ill family members, it would be a good idea to gently broach the subject of final wishes. That’s the time to talk with them or their designee about burial of a body versus cremation and what should be done with ashes in the event of a cremation.
Sometimes Catholics are asked to make funeral and burial arrangements for non-Catholics, who may ask for an inappropriate disposition. What do you do if a non-Catholic loved one wants you to scatter his ashes at sea or have his cremains processed into a cultured diamond?
One option would be to present the Church’s guidelines on treatment of the human body. If the non-Catholic is a Christian, he might find the Church’s veneration for the human body to be attractive. Most Christians agree that the human body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (CCC 1695), they believe that we share in the death and resurrection of Christ (1026), and that our bodies will be glorified on the last day (1060). A natural extension of those beliefs is that the most fitting disposition of the human body is to tend to it carefully and lay it to rest in a grave, in imitation of the treatment his disciples gave to the body of the Lord after his death (cf. Matt. 27:57-61, John 19:38-42).
If a family member or friend insists on arrangements that violate the Church’s guidelines for burial and you are unable to dissuade him, a second option would be to respectfully pass on accepting a designation to make the final arrangements. You can simply note that the arrangements desired aren’t ones you can participate in with a clear conscience, and that your loved one should find someone else to handle matters for him.
Finally, remember that as long as due attention is paid to the fitting disposition of a person’s body, the details of where and how are of secondary importance. St. Augustine wrote about the death of his mother in his spiritual memoirs. St. Monica, conscious that her sons were worried about burying her far from home, told them, “Lay this body anywhere. Let not the care for that [in] any way disquiet you. This only I request, that you would remember me at the Lord’s altar, wherever you be.”
Monica knew her sons would see to it that she had a Christian burial. The exact location where her body was laid to rest in a Christian manner, at home or abroad, didn’t matter. What mattered was that she was remembered at the altar of the Lord during the Mass. That, in the end, is the most fitting disposition of the human body and the most fitting remembrance of the human soul.