Since this week we have celebrated the Feast of All Saints and All Souls I thought it would make sense to comment a little on the new instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “Ad resugendum cum Christo” (To Rise with Christ) on “the burial of the deceased and the treatment of the cremated remains.” The first thing is to note that this does not change our current practices. In 1963 an instruction was issued permitting cremation as long as it was not done as a sign of denial of our Christian beliefs and that is consistent with the words in the new instructions that allow for cremation “in the absence of motives contrary to Christian doctrine.” (AR 4).
The primary intent of our burial rites are to maintain the proper respect for the body and to reflect in our actions and in the treatment of the remains this respect as well as our faith in the resurrection. Particularly when we are remembering and honoring those who have died we also reflect on our basic beliefs. We think about heaven, and hell, and purgatory. We reflect on the life of the deceased, as well as on our own. And we consider how we are to live out our lives and why. We desire comfort at this time, but also are seeking answers and truth. We know we will not get all of the answers we desire, but it is a critical time to know how much God cares for us and is with us especially when we are carrying our crosses.
For this reason the cremated remains are to be laid to rest in a sacred place where they may be visited both now and in the generations to come at places of prayer and remembrance. Specifically this is described as “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.” (AR 5) The practice of keeping the cremated remains in a home is recognized as not being such a place and is permitted “only in grave and exceptional cases” and then only with the permission of the bishop and for the national council of bishops to decide what these grave and exceptional circumstances may be. (AR 6)
The particular practices that continue to be identified as prohibited are the scattering of ashes, the preservation of the ashes in mementos or jewelry, or the division of the cremated remains to be kept or buried in various places. All of these are practices that are becoming more common and thus their prohibition needs to be known. The scattering of ashes portrays an understanding of life that is over, that we can only be useful in going back to nature and participating in the ‘cycle of life’. But we believe God created us for a purpose that is beyond just this life on earth, and that our ultimate end is meant to be in a glorified body in heaven. Our final burial, whether cremated or not, should be in a place for prayer and remembrance, not divided or kept only for the memories of various individuals, but for the greater community of the Church.
Discussing and reflecting on death can be depressing or morbid to some, but hopefully we see it as a part of how we were created. As we have gone through a physical birth, so we will go through a physical death, but know that we are ultimately meant, like all the saints, for heaven.