The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a new instruction Tuesday morning, October 25, explaining the rules and the underlying theology regarding Catholic burials.
I woke this morning to a Twitterstorm of exclamations: “The Catholic Church is changing!” “Cremation is finally approved!” “Vatican says no to scattering ashes!” “Vatican: Don’t Scatter Ashes, and Don’t Keep Them At Home!”
The thing is, those were always the rules! The CDF issued new guidelines because so many abuses have crept up in the past decade, that Catholics needed to be reminded of WHAT the Church teaches, and WHY. The new tradition of scattering ashes has caught on, like the romance of a beach wedding, with even faithful believers following the new fashion rather than abiding by the constant law of the Church.
Check the Internet: There are plenty of companies offering to fashion your loved one’s ashes into a portrait, fire them off into space, dump them into the sea, etch them onto your arm in a tattoo or scatter them on the winds of Sedona or across home base at Wrigley Field.
A good friend of mine (not a Catholic) once told me about a driving trip with her mother, for the purpose of returning her now-deceased father to the places that were important in his youth: the elementary school, the farm, the forest. “We put a tablespoonful of him here,” she said, “and a tablespoon of him there….” I know they were creating a tradition based in love, but it was a shock to my Catholic sensibilities.
Here’s the thing: The Catholic Church DOES permit cremation–that’s nothing new; but what she DOES NOT permit is scattering the ashes. There are reasons for that:
- Catholics believe that the body is sacred, even after death. Spreading of ashes may seem to deny that reality.
- Catholics believe that just as Jesus rose from the dead, so will his followers be raised on the last day. We’re going to get our earthly bodies back again, only better. Granted, God is God–and even if the body is lost at sea or mutilated in a meat grinder or burned in a fire, or if you had a leg amputated and buried years ago, God can restore the body to its original form. However, the intentional separation of the body’s parts (in this case, ashes) belies that sacred destiny.
The other part of the Church’s teaching: The body, whether in its entirety in a casket or cremated and stored in an urn, must be kept in a sacred space. The mantle in your living room does not fit the definition of “sacred space,” nor does the golf course or the forest or the northern lake. The body must be interred in a cemetery or in a columbarium, a place of repose that has been consecrated for that purpose.
Here, for your information, is the full Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo, explaining in greater detail.