Vatican: Cremation ashes cannot be scattered, divvied up, or kept at home
VATICAN CITY - The Vatican on Tuesday published guidelines for Catholics who want to be cremated, saying their remains cannot be scattered, divvied up or kept at home but rather stored in a sacred, church-approved place.
The new instructions were released just in time for Halloween and “All Souls Day” on Nov. 2, when the faithful are supposed to pray for and remember the dead.
For most of its 2,000-year history, the Catholic Church only permitted burial, arguing that it best expressed the Christian hope in resurrection. But in 1963, the Vatican explicitly allowed cremation as long as it didn’t suggest a denial of faith about resurrection.
The new document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith repeats that burial remains preferred, with officials calling cremation a “brutal destruction” of the body. But it lays out guidelines for conserving ashes for the increasing numbers of Catholics who choose cremation for economic, ecological or other reasons.
It said it was doing so to counter what it called “new ideas contrary to the church’s faith” that had emerged since 1963, including New Age-y ideas that death is a “fusion” with Mother Nature and the universe, or the “definitive liberation” from the prison of the body.
To set the faithful straight, the Vatican said ashes and bone fragments cannot be kept at home, since that would deprive the Christian community as a whole of remembering the dead. Rather, church authorities should designate a sacred place, such as a cemetery or church area, to hold them.
Only in extraordinary cases can a bishop allow ashes to be kept at home, it said. Vatican officials declined to say what circumstances would qualify, but presumably countries where Catholics are a persecuted minority and where Catholic churches and cemeteries have been ransacked would qualify.
The document said remains cannot be divided among family members or put in lockets or other mementos. Nor can the ashes be scattered in the air, land or sea since doing so would give the appearance of “pantheism, naturalism or nihilism,” the guidelines said.
It repeated church teaching that Catholics who choose to be cremated for reasons contrary to the Christian faith must be denied a Christian funeral.
The new instruction carries an Aug. 15 date and says Pope Francis approved it March 18.
The author of the text, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, was asked at a Vatican briefing if Francis had any reservations about the text, particularly the refusal to let family members keep remains of their loved ones at home.
“The dead body isn’t the private property of relatives, but rather a son of God who is part of the people of God,” Mueller said. “We have to get over this individualistic thinking.”
While the new instruction insists that remains be kept together, Vatican officials said they are not about to go gather up the various body parts of saints that are scattered in churches around the world. The practice of divvying up saints’ bodies for veneration - a hand here, a thigh bone there - was a fad centuries ago but is no longer in favor.
“Going to all the countries that have a hand of someone would start a war among the faithful,” reasoned Monsignor Angel Rodriguez Luno, a Vatican theological adviser.
A bit of Catholic doctrine on cremation
In synthesis, the Catholic Church has always taught against cremation for the following reasons:
- Each one of us is an individual composed by body and soul, made in the image and likeness of God. Both body and soul are essentially united to reflect a particular facet of God.
- The separation of body and soul is a violence that came as a consequence of original sin. It breaks that planned unity each one of us is called to reflect.
- When a just man dies, his soul goes to Heaven and enjoys happiness. However, this happiness is incomplete until his body resurrects and joins his soul.
- To allow the just man to live in Heaven without his body, God gives him a specific grace to compensate for that lack.
- Therefore, the body that dies is very important. It must be resurrected in order to complete the image and likeness of God which that person represents.
- Hence, we are taught to regard death as a sleep - the dead sleep in Christ (1 Cor 15:18), for they will rise again. When the body is committed to the earth, symbolically, we recall that it will germinate and spring up: “It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption” (1 Cor 15:42).
- Acknowledging the dignity of the human body, the temple of the Holy Ghost, we reverently buried the body. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, on whom we model ourselves, was laid in the tomb and rose again.
- For these reasons we Catholics are against cremation.
- They believe in reincarnation, that is, the soul that leaves the dead body returns to animate another being. When this being ends the soul returns to other beings again and again. Therefore, the body is a kind of shell that changes in every cycle of this process. So, for them, the body has no importance.
- They believe in nothing after death, that is, they are materialists. For them everything ends with death. Therefore, it is pointless to pay respect to the body.
- In both cases they disliked the sight of sepulchral monuments because they reminded them of death, which disturbs their earthly pleasures.
- For these reasons pagans and Freemasons are favorable to cremation.
Among the ancient peoples, the Jews buried their dead. Holy Scripture speaks often of the burial of kings and prophets. That a corpse should be left unburied was a chastisement (Deut. 28:26). Only during times of pestilence were they allowed to burn individual corpses.
The Romans in earlier times also buried their dead, and the profanation of a tomb was severely punished. However, in later times, when their customs were corrupted by Greek influences, they began to practice cremation.
Cremation is linked to Paganism and Barbarism as observed in Spirago’s Catechism Explained: "All barbarous nations who in an uncivilized state burned their dead abandoned the funeral pyre and adopted the grave as soon as civilization shed its light in their land."
Christianity did, in fact, abolish cremation. St. Augustine denounced it as a barbarous practice that pagans used to deny the reality of the resurrection and mock Christianity. Charlemagne forbade the Saxons to cremate corpses.
It was only in the late 19th century that cremation returned to the scene in Europe, promoted by Freemasonry. In those days, when Paganism and Pantheism were on the rise, cremation once again became fashionable.
In the 20th century, the Church had fresh motives for insisting on the perpetuation of a Catholic burial and the exclusion of cremation. The Church made clear prohibitions on this matter. The 1917 Code of Canon Law, canon 1203, forbade cremation because it could cause scandal, and its introduction was devised and implemented by the Church's enemies.
The Code made it unlawful for anyone to order that his own remains or those of another be cremated. It was likewise unlawful to join any society whose object was to spread the practice of cremation. Nor was it allowed to cooperate in the cremation of a body. No Catholic who decided to be cremated could receive the last rites unless he reversed his decision. No one who left in his will the order to be cremated could be buried with the rites of the Church.
That is how things stood until May 8, 1963 when Paul VI revoked canon 1203. The reasons he gave for this act frontally contradict the previous teachings of the Church. Paul VI said cremation would be permitted provided that it would not reflect a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body. According to him, cremation would not destroy such faith, since regardless of whether we have a body or ashes, on Judgment Day God transforms that material into a man’s glorified body.
In general Catholics did not follow this novel decision, but continued to be guided by the previous guidelines. Paul VI’s innovation was generally considered to be a concession made to Freemasonry - among other enemies - that characterized the so-called Conciliar Revolution.
The general practice of the Church continues to follow the old custom of burying the bodies of the dead.