Q: My dad has been diagnosed with cancer and we’re not sure how much longer he will be with us. He has requested that his remains be cremated and that there be a funeral celebrated for him. My siblings think we should divide his ashes after his funeral and place them in urns in special places in our homes. What does the church teach about burying the ashes of a loved one?
A: Thank you for your question; my prayers most certainly go out to you and your family during this difficult time. A few years ago I led a pilgrimage to Italy, and we visited the catacombs of St. Callixtus along the Appian Way just outside of Rome.
The catacombs are a vast underground network of rooms and passages that served as mausoleums where the ancient Romans buried their dead. When the persecutions began, Christians buried their dead, including martyrs, in the catacombs as well.
The catacombs were sacred places for the early Christian community where the memory and spirit of their dead lived on. So you can see that interring the bodies of the dead properly and respectfully has been an important part of church practice and custom from the very beginning.
Having a specific and sacred space reserved for members of our Catholic Christian family who have gone before us is important for us today just as it was for the Christians of ancient Rome. I know many people who find great comfort and even healing in frequent visits to the graves of family members and friends. Doing so reminds us that they are still members of our family and continue being our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Dividing the cremated remains among family members and not properly interring them runs the danger of taking away this important spiritual and emotional benefit from everyone associated with the individual.
Moreover, properly interring a person’s cremated remains is not just a pious suggestion, it is church law. Doing anything with the cremated remains of a loved one other than proper burial or interment, such as scattering the ashes or dividing them among family members, is strictly prohibited.
Because cremation is increasing in many countries, including our own, the Vatican recently released a document entitled "To Rise with Christ" reaffirming the longstanding practice regarding the treatment of cremated remains: “When, for legitimate motives, cremation of the body has been chosen, the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose.”
The document also says that a Catholic funeral must be denied if it is the intent of the individual to have their ashes scattered or treated in any way other than proper burial or interment.
While that may sound heavy-handed, this rule impresses on us the importance the church places on respectful treatment of the remains of a loved one. Three points are important here.
First, we believe that death does not separate us; the dead continue being members of our family, and as members of our family their remains must be treated in a dignified manner in keeping with their baptism.
Second, we believe that the body is sacred and doesn’t stop being so after death and cremation.
Lastly, proper burial or interment affirms our belief in the resurrection of the body at the end of time. St. Paul reminds us of this: “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22)
As you can see, the church has “pastoral reasons for the preference of the burial of the remains of the faithful” and that means interring them in a Catholic cemetery or other sacred place. Keeping ashes at home or scattering the cremated remains is specifically prohibited.
I hope and pray that you can help your siblings understand and appreciate this important church teaching and that it will comfort your family and give you a sense of peace in your time of loss.
Northwest Catholic - May 2017