Ashes to Ashes

The recent promulgation of the Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo (To rise with Christ) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has resulted in some confusion regarding the issues of cremation and the conservation of ashes.

The Vatican lifted the ban on cremation in 1963. While To rise with Christ, like the Code of Canon Law, recommends that the custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed, it forbids cremation only if it has been chosen for reasons that are contrary to Christian teaching.   The Instruction says that “cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life.”.

The 1963 ruling made no allowance for prayer or rituals to be held with the cremated remain, so funeral services were still conducted in the presence of the body, with cremation taking place afterwards. This changed in 1997 when the Vatican granted permission for the funeral liturgy to be celebrated in the presence of the cremated remains

Nevertheless, it is recommended that the cremation occur later because an important sign in the funeral liturgy is the body of the deceased Christian who was created in the image and likeness of God.

Just as he or she was washed free of sin in the font and clothed in the white robe of redemption on the day of baptism, so now the casket is sprinkled with holy water and clothed in the white pall. The body then rests near the paschal candle.  Much of this symbolism is lost if the body is not present.

When the body is present, it may be taken to the crematorium at the conclusion of the funeral liturgy. The Rite of Committal can be celebrated there in the presence of family and friends, before the body is given over to the fire.

The church teaches that cremated remains should be treated with the same respect given to the corporeal remains of a human body so, when the family is given the ashes later, they are reverently interred, again with family and a few friends present, in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium.

The Instruction states that, apart from exceptional cases dependent on local cultural conditions, keeping the ashes of the departed in a home is not permitted. Even when permission is given, the ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained with regard to the circumstances of such reservation.

A tomb or grave becomes a place to visit, a special location for prayer and remembrance. Having such a place is an important part of the mourning and grieving process that makes us human beings. For this reason, “it is not permitted to scatter ashes in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewellery or other objects”.



Elizabeth Harrington