On Tuesday, October 26, 2016, the Vatican published new guidelines for Catholics wanting to be cremated. The updated guidelines were released just prior to All Souls Day, a day of praying for and remembering the dead.
The History of Catholic Cremation
For most of the existence of the Catholic religion (over 2,000 years), the church only allowed remains to be laid to rest via a proper burial. Catholic families have only had the option of choosing cremation as an alternative to the preferred and traditional burial since 1963, which has since become popular due to its affordability and simplicity. Today, many Catholics choose cremation for a variety of reasons, some of which are accepted by the church, and some which are not.
Reasons for Updated Guidelines
Over time, the practice has evolved from burying ashes to scattering them, dividing them up amongst close friends and family members, and storing them in various places with no particularly sacred affiliation. And, many who choose to be cremated have made their final wishes clear, wanting their ashes to be scattered over the ocean, or in some other place that was meaningful to them and/or their close friends and family members.
The Vatican issued the latest guidelines as a means of clarifying the proper way to deal with a Catholic loved one’s cremated remains. The practice of cremation itself is technically accepted by the church. However, the new guidelines were written in order to specifically regulate what is done with the ashes after cremation.
Storing Cremated Remains
Due to Catholic beliefs in the resurrection of the body after death specifically, the guidelines specify that the ashes must stay intact, in the same way that a body being buried would be kept. The act of separating the ashes, and/or scattering them in several different places goes against the Congregation’s belief that the body is sacred, and that it should be treated and stored as such.
Furthermore, according to the updated guidelines, pieces of jewelry and other mementos are not acceptable containers for storing cremated remains of Catholic loved ones. The guidelines state specifically that, “It is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects.” Only in rare and conditional circumstances may a bishop allow the remains to be stored in some other, non-sacred place or vessel.
The new guidelines also strictly prohibit Catholics choosing cremation for reasons that don’t align with the Catholic faith from being allowed a Christian funeral service. For example, if you are planning to have your ashes or the ashes of a loved one scattered or stored in a living room, this goes directly against the Catholic religion, and would be cause for the denial of a Christian funeral.
Talking with Your Priest
For those with concerns regarding the affordability of traditional burial services and/or purchasing cemetery property, we recommend having a conversation with your parish priest. We also offer a variety of funeral pre-planning services that may help with the burden of laying a loved one to rest.
The full list of guidelines is published here.