VATICAN CITY — The Church permits cremation but not the scattering of ashes on land, sea or in the air; dividing them among family members, or preserving them in jewelry, the Vatican has stated in a new Instruction.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith today issued the new Instruction, Ad resurgendum cum Christo, [To rise with Christ], in light of the increasing number of cremations worldwide and, at the same time, “new ideas contrary to the faith” that have “become widespread.”
The intention of the new instruction is to underline the “doctrinal and pastoral reasons for the preference of the burial of the remains of the faithful, and to set out norms pertaining to the conservation of ashes in the case of cremation.”
The document, issued just ahead of All Souls Day on November 2 when the Church remembers the dead, explains the nature of death and the resurrection of the body. It recalls that Christ will “raise us up on the last day”; that through Baptism “in a certain way, we have already risen with Christ,” and that because of Christ, Christian death “has a positive meaning,”
“By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul,” the document states.
Drawing on Sacred Scripture, canon law, and previous magisterial documents on the issue, the new instruction explains that the Church prefers burial to cremation because it is “above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body” and it confirms the faith of the Church “in the resurrection of the body.” It also explains the importance of burial in a “sacred place,” and stresses why this is “one of the corporal works of mercy.”
Yet it goes on to state that, while the Church prefers the practice of burying, she has “no doctrinal objections” to cremation, because it “negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body.” Cremation is not prohibited, it states, unless it was chosen for reasons “contrary to Christian doctrine.” Furthermore, it must be carried out with “relevant liturgical and pastoral directives, and taking care to avoid every form of scandal or the appearance of religious indifferentism.”
The document lays down several clear conditions for cremation: The ashes of the faithful must be “laid to rest in a sacred place” such as a cemetery or church, or an area set aside for the purpose; they should not be kept in a domestic residence except in “grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature”; and they should not be “divided among various family members.”
Furthermore, to avoid “every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism,” the document stresses 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.”
Such courses of action, it adds, “cannot be legitimized by an appeal to the sanitary, social, or economic motives that may have occasioned the choice of cremation.”
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