Vatican reaffirms teaching on cremation, burial of remains

Fri, Mar 24th 2017 10:00 am
These niches inside the Old Ascension Chapel at Mt. Olivet Cemetery are just one of several options to support the Vatican's teaching on the reverent disposition of cremated remains. (Courtesy of Kevin A. Keenan)
These niches inside the Old Ascension Chapel at Mt. Olivet Cemetery are just one of several options to support the Vatican's teaching on the reverent disposition of cremated remains. (Courtesy of Kevin A. Keenan)

New instructions published by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirm teaching that the Church is not opposed to cremation, while continuing to recommend that the cremated remains of the deceased be buried in Catholic cemeteries or other sacred spaces.

Approved by Pope Francis and issued at his direction, the document, "Ad resurgendum cum Christo" ("To rise with Christ"), was issued because cremation continues to gain in popularity and is becoming more common among Catholics.

While the Church "continues to prefer the practice of burying bodies of the deceased, cremation is not prohibited unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine," said Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.    

Ashes, also known as cremated remains, must be laid to rest in a cemetery or other sacred space, such as a church or an area set aside for burial, "and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority."

"The Vatican document emphasizes the importance of reserving ashes in a sacred space so that as time passes, loved ones will not be forgotten and their remains will always be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve," said Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, episcopal moderator of the Catholic Cemetery Conference. "The issuing of this document gives us an opportunity to help people reflect on the care of their loved one after death."

Church teaching does not allow for the cremated remains to be placed in a residence or to be scattered in the air, on land or at sea. They are not to be divided and preserved in mementos such as jewelry or other objects.

"Cremation continues to be a popular choice for Catholic families," said Carmen A. Colao, diocesan director of Catholic Cemeteries. "Our cemeteries have numerous options to support the Vatican's teaching on the reverent disposition of cremated remains."

Colao said it is important for Catholics to discuss their burial wishes in advance with family members, and to consult with the diocese's family service counselors and their parish priest when it comes to cremation.

"There is still the misconception among some people that the Catholic Church does not permit cremation. Catholics need to understand the Church teaching that surrounds cremation and burial of cremated remains, so there are no misunderstandings at the time of death."

Cremation was permitted by the Catholic Church in 1963 and incorporated into canon law in 1983.  

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