Questions: conserving a person’s ashes
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last week issued an instruction regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of a person’s ashes when the person is cremated. Can you talk about that?
Sure. I think it’s very helpful for Catholics in the Archdiocese of New Orleans to know that these guidelines essentially track what our local practice has been for several years. It’s also important to know that there was a time when the church frowned upon cremation. That opposition by the church to cremation was because cremation could be understood to reflect a disbelief in the resurrection of the body from the dead. That is not the current understanding of cremation. There is a growing number of people who wish to be cremated for practical reasons, such as it being less expensive or preserving space in cemeteries, which have a finite amount of land. The church understands cremation as a valid way of reverencing the body.
What prompted the Vatican to issue its recent guidelines?
Many bishops from around the world and, certainly, in the United States have expressed concerns that the remains of the person have not in some cases been treated with respect and have not been buried. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith received a number of inquiries about the conservation of a person’s ashes, and the Holy Father asked them to review the current situation and issue an instruction for Catholics throughout the world.
Were individual bishops in the U.S. asked to give input?
When I was chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, the issue of cremation and the disposition of ashes came up from a number of bishops in the hope that the church would be able to provide some instruction. So it was not a surprise when this came out.
What underlies the church’s teaching about reverence for the body and for a person’s ashes?
Most importantly, we believe that we, as the daughters and sons of God, are given this earthly journey, and at some point we are called home to the kingdom of God. Whenever God calls us home – whether through natural death or at the hands of another person through violence – we are called to reverence the body because that body is the place where God dwelled within us during our lifetime. Our body was baptized. Our body is the place where we have received the Body and Blood of Christ. As Catholics we believe in resurrection from the dead. We want to show reverence to the human body because it is a gift from God. It is the place in which God made his dwelling from the moment of our conception through death.
What are some of the problems associated with keeping a loved one’s ashes in an urn at home or scattering the ashes in the field or on a body of water?
It’s important to discuss first the ideal. One of the best ways to honor a person would be to bury them in a cemetery or to place their ashes in a columbarium. The reason for this goes back for millennia. Jesus, of course, died and was raised from the dead, and we believe we will die and be raised to eternal life. The early Christians buried their dead in cemeteries, which upheld the relationship between the living and the dead. It also ensured that a person’s death would not be minimized or relegated to a private devotion. The church always has taught that the tombs of the dead are places of prayer, remembrance and reflection, and “the faithful departed” remain a part of the church. We believe in the “communion of saints.” That means those who are living are connected in a real way with those who have died and those who are already in heaven. Preserving a person’s ashes in a sacred cemetery is a way of ensuring that the person will never be forgotten and will have the prayers and remembrance of their family and the entire Christian community.
I think we also should look at some of the practices that might not be appropriate. People ask why the church doesn’t want a loved one’s ashes kept on a mantel in their home. In addition to the reverence due the body, there is another question. From an emotional point of view, it is often not healthy for a person to keep the remains in their residence. Sometimes people will make the argument, “I will reverence the remains in my home.” But then you have to ask, what will happen when you die. Will your children – and their children and their children’s children – feel that same reverence? It would be unfortunate if a person’s remains would be treated with a lack of respect. We’ve heard of people dividing up the ashes of a person among family members or putting the ashes into lockets or earrings. We’ve also heard about people scattering their loved one’s ashes in a forest or on a sea or river. We don’t think that is a way of showing proper respect for the person and his or her life.
Has anything changed in church teaching with this instruction?
There’s nothing that’s changed in church teaching. In fact, the guidelines are essentially the same thing the archdiocese has printed in a brochure that we provide for people who are thinking about cremation. We specifically say that the body is sacred because it is created by God and because it is the place where God dwelled. Therefore, whether a person is cremated or buried, the body should be treated with reverence and respect.
What are your instructions to priests and deacons as they meet with families for funeral preparations?
I’ve sent out a copy of the complete instructions from the Vatican. It’s the responsibility of our clergy – priests and deacons – to explain to families the teachings of the church and, perhaps even more important, why the church teaches what it does. I think if families receive the proper catechesis on this issue, most often there will be true acceptance and understanding.