What the Catholic Church has to say about cremation

Pope Francis delivers his speech during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. In a recent speech, he stated that cremation is permitted as long as it does not suggest a denial of faith. (Alessandra Tarantino/ AP)

On Tuesday, Pope Francis released a doctrine concerning the burial of the deceased, specifically on the matter of cremation. This doctrine reiterated that burial of remains is preferred, but the church permits cremation as long as it does not suggest a denial of faith. This doctrine was established in 1963, before which, cremation was not allowed. However, it continues to set guidelines for the treatment of ashes after cremation. The remains must not be scattered, divided or kept at home; instead, authorities of the church should designate a cemetery or church place in which to keep them. This new doctrine withholds grieving possibilities for the loved ones of the deceased, denying a personal right to interpret both scripture and burial traditions and disregards previous actions and fads of the church.

Cremation was not permitted in the Catholic Church on the basis of the hope for resurrection, but the Church decided in 1963 that cremation would no longer be opposed: allowing those who were cremated to receive the proper sacraments and funeral rites. The new doctrine is a response to practices that have arisen since then, and states that burial in a sacred ground is the most fitting way to express faith in resurrection of the body. The Church states that it is opposed to the scattering of ashes to avoid pantheistic, naturalistic or nihilistic misunderstandings.

The loss of a loved one is deeply personal, and learning how to cope with that is a new challenge each day. Each person grieves in their own way, and the Catholic Churches’ decision to limit the manners with which a person can do so is unreasonable. The argument to keep the body on a sacred ground as an expression of faith is reasonable, yet the obligation of this expression to receive a Catholic funeral is unwarranted. Faith in resurrection is not displayed in the location of one’s body after death, and if the presence of remains aids family members in their grieving process, the decision to allow that process should not be penalized. Furthermore, the reasoning behind the prohibition of scatting ones ashes in nature is another form of monitoring expression. The Church is attempting to restrict the expression of other religions, yet there are other reasons behind the desire to scatter ashes, including a peaceful resting place that one loved or a desire to be free from the confines of an urn. Despite the naturalistic ideologies over which the Church has expressed its fears, there are many reasons why one may decide they want their ashes scattered, and their restricting someone’s right is to not fully understand the situation.

This doctrine displays a failure to accept different methods of dealing with death among different peoples and times. In this text, the Church strictly prohibits the division of ashes, as well as their preservation in jewelry or mementos. The stated reasons for this include both the previously stated attempt to avoid the appearance of pantheism, nihilism or naturalism as well as to ensure the human body, which is sacred, is treated with respect. However, the Church’s traditional practice of relics contradicts this new prohibition of the doctrine. The practice of keeping a piece of a saint’s body as veneration was believed to be associated with the holiness of the saint’s soul. This division and preservation of the body is similar to the practice of putting ashes in jewelry or mementos. Carrying the presence of a loved one at all times does not bring them back, but to some people, it brings them closer. In 2013, the Catholic Church did not believe the tour that St. Anthony of Padua’s tongue took around New York was sacrilegious or disrespectful, so it does not make sense why a locket containing a loved one’s ashes is considered to be either.

The decisions surrounding the death of a loved one are extremely difficult and personal. The Catholic Church should not use the withholding of funeral rites and sacraments as a punishment. There is no “right” way to grieve, and people should be able to decide what is best for themselves and their families after they are gone.


Alyssa Luis is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at alyssa.luis@uconn.edu.