The Catholic Church has always had an uneasy relationship with the concept of cremation. In fact, the church forbade cremation to Catholics until May 1963. Even then, the church added a caveat that the cremation cannot violate basic Catholic beliefs. For instance, a person who chose cremation to liberate the soul from the body would be violating the teachings of the church that emphasize the connection between body and soul. More recently, the question has come up about what to do with cremated remains.
In 2016, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith drafted guidelines, endorsed by Pope Francis, dealing with cremated remains. The first guideline is a strong suggestion — perhaps mandate would be a better term — that the cremated remains should be placed in a “respectful vessel.” They should then be buried in a Catholic cemetery or entombed in a Catholic mausoleum.
The cremation itself should not take place until after the funeral liturgy. Members of the family and community should have a chance to view the body in order to help facilitate grieving. If the cremation must take place immediately for medical or aesthetic reasons, the container holding the cremated remains must be present during the funeral service.
Scattering Cremated Remains
Many people who have their loved ones cremated choose to scatter the ashes in a favorite place of the loved one or a place of significance to the family. The Catholic Church forbids this practice on the grounds that scattering ashes desecrates the body, which will one day rise again. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also notes that it cannot “condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death.”
Burial at sea is allowed as long as the cremated remains are placed in a heavy container that will sink to its final resting place at the bottom of the ocean. The container must not be constructed to disintegrate at a future date, releasing the ashes. The church forbids scattering ashes at sea or over any other body of water.
Keeping or Separating Cremated Remains
Another tradition for dealing with cremated remains is to divide them up among family members. Many family members wear cremation jewelry to honor their loved ones. The Catholic Church also frowns on this practice. After all, they argue, the cremated remains are a representation of the whole body. No one would chop an arm or a leg from a corpse to keep in their homes as a reminder or a way to honor their dead loved one.
Finally, the church disapproves of keeping cremains in the home rather than burying them. The church believes that the loved one’s final resting place should be available to the entire community so that anyone can go to the grave or the mausoleum to pray.
Negotiating with Your Priest
There are some members of the Catholic faith who do not agree with all of the church’s teaching around cremation and the handling of cremated remains. For instance, you might want to be cremated without a viewing, or you might want your ashes scattered in your favorite garden.
In cases like these, it’s best for you and your family to talk to your priest. Although he may try to convince you to follow the church’s guidelines, he will almost certainly agree to do the service anyway. Perhaps you can reach a compromise. When I was working in hospice, for instance, I met a Catholic man with severe liver disease. He did not want a viewing, because he did not want his friends to remember him jaundiced and emaciated. He and the priest agreed to have his ashes present at the funeral and to display a picture of how he had looked when he was healthy. In the rare event that the priest will not perform the service, you can find another person to do so such as a hospice chaplain.
The Catholic Church has been struggling with its position on cremation for many years. The church still prefers burial over cremation. As of 2016, though, the church has provided Catholics with guidelines on how to treat cremated remains.
For more information about this issue, visit Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington.