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The Last Word - January 2017

Concerns about Cremation

Recently, the Holy See promulgated a new instruction regarding cremation, "To Rise with Christ.”  By now, I suppose most American Catholics are aware of the fact that cremation is now allowed in the Catholic Church, after many years of being prohibited.  That change in the law has been with us since the early 1960’s.

As the new instruction itself points out, the problem was never really with cremation itself, even though the Church still prefers burial of the bodies of the deceased.  "The Church raises no doctrinal objections to this practice, since cremation of the deceased's body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life."  The problem was that cremation had often been chosen in former times for reasons contrary to the faith: for example, as a way to express a contempt for the body, a denial of the resurrection, or even a denial of individual existence even beyond death.

In my experience, cremation is not generally chosen for any of those reasons but, rather, for economic reasons or out of a discomfort with being buried in the ground or even for environmental concerns.  However, change in law, whether Church law or civil law, often brings with it certain unintended consequences.  And that appears to be the reason for recent instruction.

The Church rightly insists on reverence for the sacredness of human remains.  Cremated remains must be shown the same care as we would show for the bodies of the deceased.  As a result, the Church requires that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or in areas that have been set aside expressly for the purpose of being a final, dedicated, and permanent resting place.  The remains are not to be scattered to the wind or scattered on land or sea.  They are not to be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry, or other objects. They are not to be retained in a private home, and they are not to be divided among various family members.  All of these practices are liable to result, even if only in subsequent generations, with being discarded or handled with disrespect out of apathy or ignorance of their significance.

By having the disposition of the remains in a cemetery or other designated place, they become "objects of the Christian community's prayers and remembrance."  Such a final disposition "prevents the departed from being forgotten,” for the Church remembers even when all others forget.  Other practices run the risk of sending false messages, such as "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.’” All of these notions are contrary to Christian faith.

So strongly is the Church concerned about these matters that the instruction concludes with some very strong language:  "When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith, a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law."

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal