New Vatican Guidelines on Funeral rites prefer Burial and question scattering ashes

Posted by Kendall Harmon

...the most significant new departure, contained in the appendix of the book, concerns cremation. Msgr. Lameri explained that the issue of cremation had been placed in an appendix to highlight the fact that the Church, "although she does not oppose the cremation of bodies, when not done 'in odium fidei', continues to maintain that the burial of the dead is more appropriate, that it expresses faith in the resurrection of the flesh, nourishes the piety of the faithful and favours the recollection and prayer of relatives and friends".

In exceptional cases the rites normally celebrated at the cemetery chapel or the tomb may be celebrated at the cremation site, and it is recommended that the coffin be accompanied to that site. One particularity important aspect is that "cremation is considered as concluded when the urn is deposited in the cemetery". This is because, although the law does allow ashes to be scattered in the open or conserved in places other than a cemetery, "such practices ... raise considerable doubts as to their coherence to Christian faith, especially when they conceal pantheist or naturalistic beliefs".

Read it all.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryDeath / Burial / Funerals* Culture-WatchReligion & Culture* TheologyEschatologyPastoral Theology

14 Comments
Posted April 11, 2012 at 5:28 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Jackson wrote:

“...continues to maintain that the burial of the dead is more appropriate, that it expresses faith in the resurrection of the flesh…”
The ressurection of the flesh is not dependent on whether one is cremated or not. So why is picking burial requested over cremation? There seems to be no connection.

April 11, 9:41 am | [comment link]
2. Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

I have problems with cremation on a number of theological levels. If the body is a temple, as Paul writes, then how is cremation not the ultimate, final desecration of that temple? I’ve never come up with a good rationale in my own mind to that question. I find the Eastern Orthodox teachings on the subject to be extremely hard to refute.

The closest I can come is to look to the martyrs who were burned at the stake to ashes, but even that seems to me to be of a completely different nature because that was not of their own free will or wishes, but was a desecration done by others, therefore the sin of which is on their heads not the individual martyr. To me, it is akin to an analogy of saying that while everyone dies, it doesn’t mean that I can go out an kill myself.

But, to be fair, I say the same thing about the modern embalming of a body. If you’ve ever seen that procedure done to a body, it is horrifying. That seems to me to be just as much a desecration of the temple of the body. Anyone with theological insight for me, I would welcome for comments. I allow both to be done at my church, but I am highly uncomfortable with it.

I was much taken by NT Wright’s book a few years ago, Surprised by Hope about the subject of the Resurrection of the Body. He goes to some great length to talk about cremation. Though he never, surprisingly given the trajectory of his thoughts on the subject, completely comes out totally against cremation from a Christian standpoint.

In the book, he makes a very strong historical argument that whatever cremation is, it is not of Christian origin. He argues that we need to be very clear about that. And ultimately he backtracks a little bit at the end and says as long as you are okay with that, then so be it, but we need to be clear this has always been a Pagan thing and Christianity has largely always taught the Resurrection of the Body, which seems to be contrary to the idea of burning the body to ashes and scattering them to the winds in some form of Pagan annihilation kind of bodily theology.

I would welcome thoughts on the issue. I am very conflicted about the issue, primarily because I grew up in the South and the idea of cremation was extremely taboo. Maybe it has changed somewhat, but being from a Cherokee and Scots-Irish background, I have never been comfortable with the theological import of cremation.

April 11, 10:11 am | [comment link]
3. FrCarl wrote:

#2 Although I understand your line of thinking re: Paul on the “body”; his point concerns choices made by the living in light of their adoption into the wider body of the Church. 
As you suggest re: martyrs, and the article points out - the standard by which we judge is (informed) faith.
Regardless of whether it is a body or ashes - I preach the Gospel which is, of course, against “pagan” worldviews of death and the “afterlife”.  Every funeral or memorial service is a God given opportunity to share both God’s Love and His Truth.
For the record, I always inquire as to “why” cremation was chosen to help me understand.  Also, my preference is for body burial and NO embalming if possible.

April 11, 11:25 am | [comment link]
4. Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

Well, I don’t see any framework in that passage to suggest that it applies only to the living. Certainly a rabbinically trained 1st century Jew would who believed in the bodily resurrection would have been horrified at cremating a body in the Greco-Roman way, particularly when Paul in other places refers to those “who have fallen asleep.” I don’t see how he could possibly have the view that they have fallen asleep if they are ashes. I just can’t justify that on scripture that what Paul was referring was just about the living. Jews had a much more holistic view of the body and soul than did the Hellenism.

As another non-theological aside, I really hate funerals that have ashes and not an actual casket. It just doesn’t feel like a funeral to me. It feels more like a memorial service with the person not actually there. I am not convinced funerals with cremains achieve the level or mourning for the family that having the actual body does. But, that’s just my liturgical opinion.

April 11, 11:43 am | [comment link]
5. Valais wrote:

This isn’t the work of the Vatican, but of the Italian Episcopal Conference, who have finally published an appendix which has existed in English for something like 20 years.

April 11, 1:10 pm | [comment link]
6. fvanzant wrote:

The 1559 Book of Common Prayer might suggest a flexible outlook. The burial service states:
“For as much as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body ha it may be like to his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.”
The ashes to ashes and dust to dust would suggest the same process as, over a long period of time, compared to the rapid decomposition provided by cremation. The ultimate resurrected body is implied to be a spiritual body at best. Some Christians would not want their original body back in any case.

April 11, 2:32 pm | [comment link]
7. Terry Tee wrote:

From a practical point of view, in a crowded country, burial is expensive and land hard to find.  Moreover, your rest may not be in peace if the land is sold for development, or a new layer of burials turfed over the old.  Here in London cemeteries are rapidly filling up, with verges and even footpaths being taken over for burial in some places.  Some 70% of UK funerals are cremations.  Finally, on a rather personal note, I have no family.  My brothers and parents have all gone before me.  I am a celibate.  My nephews and niece have their own lives, mostly overseas.  There would be no one to tend a grave, no one to come there to remember me.  Better, I think, to trust in the risen Lord who takes these mortal bodies of ours and refashions them in a way that only he can do and that is not dependent upon the final disposition of our atoms in this life.

April 11, 2:46 pm | [comment link]
8. Teatime2 wrote:

OK, this is precisely why I’m working on some unorthodox last arrangements—the concern that what remains of my immediate family (the RC members) will try to make some theological point with my funeral. These people who haven’t come to help or even visit for any of my many surgeries and difficulties because they don’t like Texas likely would show up and create a scene because I wish to be cremated. One in particular messed about with my father’s last wishes and funeral. That’s not going to happen to mine.

It seems to me that the ritual norms come about primarily because of certain prejudices and preferences that have more to do with psychology and experience than faith, and then the “theology” is built up to justify them. Well, here are my prejudices and preferences—I do not want people who spent little time or energy for me during my earthly life gawking at my dead body. It was difficult for me to deal with people staring at and commenting on my parents’ bodies. When one woman in particular who was terribly mean to my mum showed up at her wake in full grief mode, it was difficult to be cordial. I won’t put my son in that position.

Nor will I force him to hang out for hours with a corpse that doesn’t reflect whom I was but   will be the final image he has of his mum. I hate that my own last images of my parents were of them lying as shells of themselves in caskets.

I hope to spend my last few months in England. Cremate me there, please, and install my ashes somewhere in the grounds or building of a lovely English church. Remember me with a tasteful service and a picture of me in my prime. And then may my son and my friends go off and do something fun together—something that we had all done together previously, such as the medieval banquet in London, a West End show, a stately home or gardens tour. That is the way to remember me—not looking like a wax doll inside of a box.

Why must people bully over funerals, too? Sheesh, as long as it’s tasteful, let people do what they want and what is meaningful for them. Is it because some of us have long suffered with bodies that don’t work well so the rose-colored glasses are off in that regard?

What’s wrong with cremation from the Christian perspective? Why is it considered less “dignified” than a body rotting in the ground? Does it involve putting together the zillions of specks of dust upon the Resurrection of the body? I thought we’d get a new and improved version. Please?! smile

April 11, 3:10 pm | [comment link]
9. yohanelejos wrote:

I know of at least one nation, Japan, where the Orthodox church allows for cremation, but quite reluctantly, since it is the only method for burial allowed under law.

April 11, 3:50 pm | [comment link]
10. Ad Orientem wrote:

Cremation is a pagan practice and until quite recently was prohibited by every Christian church that I am aware of.  Rome’s caving in on this is most unfortunate.  That said there are exceptions to most rules.  In cases where mass catastrophe occurs sometimes you need to cremate the dead to prevent epidemics.  And in some countries, like Japan (as #9 noted), there is simply no room for traditional burial.  Secular law can mandate cremation for compelling reasons.

But in general it violates the unbroken discipline of all Christian bodies before the 20th century.  Archer is correct.  It is sacrilegious and a desecration of the human body, made in the image of God and become the temple of the Holy Spirit.  The Church rightly refuses to perform funeral rites for those who are cremated and such persons are not allowed to be interred in consecrated ground.

April 11, 4:16 pm | [comment link]
11. victorianbarbarian wrote:

To claim that cremation is categorically “sacrilegious and a desecration of the human body” is nonsense, especially if exceptions are allowed in some cases.  Expediency makes it okay?  It depends on how it is done. 
When someone burns the flag of the United States for a “free speech” protest, the point of doing it is to make people angry and attract their attention.  Most people recoil at that.  But when a flag is worn out and has reached the end of its useful “life,” the proper way to dispose of it is to privately burn it in a dignified manner. 
Pagan religions may practice cremation, but that doesn’t mean that the practice is irretrievably pagan, as long as it is done decently and in order.

April 11, 6:42 pm | [comment link]
12. MichaelA wrote:

“Such dealings with their dead seemed grievous to the Dwarves, for it was against their use; but to make such tombs as they were accustomed to build (since they will lay their dead only in stone not in earth) would have taken many years. To fire therefore they turned, rather than leave their kin to beast or bird or carrion-orc. But those who fell in Azanulbizar were honoured in memory, and to this day a Dwarf will say proudly of one of his sires: “he was a burned Dwarf”, and that is enough.” [Lord of the Rings, Appendix A]

April 12, 9:52 pm | [comment link]
13. MichaelA wrote:

Sorry, I hit ‘send’ too soon. Tolkien may have taken this passage from the episode in the Old Testament where the men of Jabesh Gilead burned the bodies of Saul and his sons after they recovered them. In context of the passage it is clear that no disrespect to the deceased was meant.

In the 3rd century AD, Minucius Felix explained to a pagan why Christians practiced burial instead of Cremation:

“But who is so foolish or so brutish as to dare to deny that man, as he could first of all be formed by God, so can again be re-formed; that he is nothing after death, and that he was nothing before he began to exist; and as from nothing it was possible for him to be born, so from nothing it may be possible for him to be restored? Moreover, it is more difficult to begin that which is not, than to repeat that which has been. Do you think that, if anything is withdrawn from our feeble eyes, it perishes to God? Every body, whether it is dried up into dust, or is dissolved into moisture, or is compressed into ashes, or is attenuated into smoke, is withdrawn from us, but it is reserved for God in the custody of the elements.

Nor, as you believe, do we fear any loss from [any particular form of] sepulture, but we adopt the ancient and better custom of burying in the earth. See, therefore, how for our consolation all nature suggests a future resurrection. The sun sinks down and arises, the stars pass away and return, the flowers die and revive again, after their win-try decay the shrubs resume their leaves, seeds do not flourish again. unless they are rotted: thus the body in the sepulchre is like the trees which in winter hide their verdure with a deceptive dryness.

Why are you in haste for it to revive and return, while the winter is still raw? We must wait also for the spring-time of the body. And I am not ignorant that many, in the consciousness of what they deserve, rather desire than believe that they shall be nothing after death; for they would prefer to be altogether extinguished, rather than to be restored for the purpose of punishment. And their error also is enhanced, both by the liberty granted them in this life, and by God’s very great patience, whose judgment, the more tardy it is, is so much the more just.” [Octavius, 34]

April 12, 10:12 pm | [comment link]
14. MichaelA wrote:

“Cremation is a pagan practice and until quite recently was prohibited by every Christian church that I am aware of.”

Didn’t the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 1961 deny that there was any formal Orthodox rule against cremation? He clearly preferred that burial be used, but he didn’t regard it as “prohibited”.

April 12, 10:19 pm | [comment link]
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