Human composting, launching ashes into space - What the Church has to say about nontraditional burials
A Pillar feature
Among the more bizarre trends to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic - besides Americans’ short-lived obsession with the unscrupulous owners of big cats - is a rise in popularity of unconventional modes of burial.
It may not come as a surprise that a global pandemic which has claimed 600,000 U.S. lives has become its own memento mori. What some may find more surprising is that, according to a May article from the BBC, people are increasingly looking to coral reefs, human composting, and even launching remains into space instead of a traditional burial when they die.
The Catholic Church, which professes the bodily resurrection of Christ as well as of all the faithful at the final judgement, has a lot to say about death, funerals, and the preparation of the body for burial.
The Pillar talked to experts on Catholic teaching about funerals and burials. They explained what the Church says about burial, and why - and what this means for various nontraditional burial methods.
Catholic principles of burial
In the Apostle’s Creed, Christians profess, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” This idea of the bodily resurrection is key to Catholic teaching on burial.
“There’s this modern idea...that the body's just a machine, to be tinkered about with at will and then just cast off,” Fr. Pius Pietrzyk, OP, a canon lawyer and assistant professor of pastoral studies at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California, told The Pillar. “But we believe in the resurrection of the body: that is that the soul is oriented towards a body, that it was made for a body.”
“The body isn’t just the refuse of the person...that's why the body is treated with great respect, and why the Church has always treated the body with respect through burial,” he said.
The belief in bodily resurrection, as well as the respect for the human body in burial, is Scriptural, Pietrzyk added.
Even before Christ, some groups of Jews had a hope for and belief in a bodily resurrection.
“The King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws….One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him,” one of the seven brothers in the book of Maccabees proclaimed before he was killed for refusing to violate God’s law.
“But your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise! Awake and sing, you who lie in the dust! For your dew is a dew of light, and you cause the land of shades to give birth,” the prophet Isaiah proclaimed.
In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul proclaims, “[I]f the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”
The rejection of the belief in the final resurrection of the body, as well as rejections of the body-soul connection and the dignity of the body, are at the heart of the problems with many new methods of burial, Pietrzyk said.
Traditional funeral Mass and burial of the body
For centuries, the only Church-approved way for a Catholic to be buried was the traditional way - with the whole remains of the body being buried in the ground after a vigil and funeral Mass.
Deacon Marc Nestorick, who serves as the outreach manager for Colorado Catholic Funeral Cemetery Services in the Denver metro area, told The Pillar that for Catholic funeral rites, there are three stages outlined in the Order of Christian Funerals: the vigil, the funeral Mass, and the burial (or Rite of Committal).
“The first one is about the community coming together around the person, that's the vigil,” he said. The standard vigil in many parts of the United States is the recitation of the rosary for the deceased, though there are other prayers that could be said.
“The second one is coming to the Church and coming to the Eucharist (for the funeral Mass). So you have the body, the deceased, being mourned and celebrated in the community, then you have the celebration in the church with the Eucharist at the center, and then you move to the cemetery, where we're saying: we're committing this individual to God and to their future in heaven.”
Cremation: A once-banned practice
While cremation is currently an acceptable method of burial for Catholics, it was forbidden by the Church until 1963, because it had come into practice specifically as a way to reject the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body.
In 1963, as the original, anti-Christian reasons for choosing cremation had faded, the Vatican declared that Catholics who were cremated would be able to receive a Catholic burial, as long as cremation had not been chosen as “a denial of Christian dogmas, the animosity of a secret society, or hatred of the Catholic religion and the Church.”
“The Church wasn't opposed to cremation qua cremation, as long as what was left was still understood as a body and properly cared for as a body,” Pietrzyk said. “The problem was that cremation became popular, in France, as a way to reject the belief in the resurrection of the body.”
In more recent days, the popularity of the scattering or dividing of ashes has been another concern of the Church when it comes to cremation.
According to the Order of Christian Funerals’ Appendix on Cremation, cremated remains “should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, and the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains at the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires.”
In 2016, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an instruction, further clarifying and reiterating the Church’s insistence that cremated remains be buried.
“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, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority,” it said.
“In memory of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, the mystery that illumines the Christian meaning of death, burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body. The Church who, as Mother, has accompanied the Christian during his earthly pilgrimage, offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of her grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory,” the instruction added.
The instruction reiterated that the scattering of remains, or the keeping of them in places like a home, or in objects like jewelry, is prohibited by Church teaching.
“The reservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community. It prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect, which eventuality is possible, most especially once the immediately subsequent generation has too passed away. Also it prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices,” the instruction noted.
Deacon Nestorick said that he and the other staff of Colorado Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services (CFCS) consider it their mission to help those grieving their loved ones to “fill the void of loss with faith.”
Gary Schaaf, executive director of CFCS, told The Pillar that sometimes this mission means gently offering alternative suggestions when a family wants to do something with their loved one’s cremated remains that would violate Church teaching.
For example, Schaaf said, sometimes families want to place pieces of cremated remains in jewelry that will be worn by family members. What Schaaf and his staff offer instead are comfort crosses, which are made of stone from Jerusalem. The crosses are cut in half lengthwise, and half of the cross is buried with the cremated remains while half of the cross stays with the family.
“We’ve been very successful when we do that with a family, because they want something palpable,” Schaaf said. “They've lost something and they don't know what to do, and you give them that comfort cross and the other piece is with their loved one’s cremated remains. It's evangelizing, and it's psychologically healthier.”
One of the dangers of scattered remains is that they get lost, which can re-open the wounds of loss in families, Schaaf said. Permanent burial of remains gives families peace of mind that their loved one’s remains aren’t going to be lost somehow.
Edward Furton, an ethicist with the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, told The Pillar that even though the Church allows for cremation, it still is not considered the ideal.
“The Church...tolerates it when there's no other option, or that's what the family believes it has to do, but burial (of the full body) is preferable, in light of the resurrection of the body,” Furton said.
This preference for burial is also stated in the Order of Christian Funerals’ Appendix on Cremation: “Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites.”
Green burial (no embalming, simple casket or burial shroud)
At many American funerals, the body is embalmed, or preserved, and made to appear as though the person were alive and merely sleeping. Many people also opt for a large casket, with a cushioned inside, that may be made from a variety of materials.
But according to the National Funeral Directors Association, the standards for cosmetic embalming in the U.S. are not the norm around the world.
The Catholic Church does not teach that the body must be embalmed, nor buried in a fancy casket. A simple casket, or even a burial shroud will do, as far as the Church is concerned.
“There's no Church requirement for (type of casket or shroud) as long as you are in fact buried, and buried properly, (such as deeply enough that you’re not going to be dug up),” Pietrzyk said.
However, it is not the Church, but local laws or cemetery rules that may override someone’s desire for a so-called “green burial,” Pietrzyk noted.
For example, some states or individual cemeteries require that people be buried in burial vaults, or concrete liners, in which caskets or remains are placed. The liners serve to protect the ground on top of the grave from sinking in, and may also help with groundwater protection.
But there are no Church requirements stating that one’s body must be embalmed and viewed at a funeral in a fancy casket or buried in a vault.
“Most people (prior to modern times) were buried in a pine box straight into the ground, and that’s fine,” Schaaf said. That’s how many people - including Julia Greely, a former slave from Denver whose cause is now open for canonization - have been buried in the past, he added.
In fact, exorbitant costs of embalming and caskets were part of what led to a rise in cremations. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the estimated cost of funeral and burial services in 2019 for an embalmed body in a casket were roughly $2,500 higher than services for a cremated body.
Coral reef burial
In its May report, the BBC spoke with Eternal Reefs, a Florida-based company that “takes the cremated remains or ‘cremains’ of an individual and incorporates them into a proprietary, environmentally safe cement mixture designed to create artificial reef formations. The Eternal Reefs are then placed in one of our permitted ocean locations selected by the individual, friend or family member.”
The unusual method of burial has been gaining in popularity, Eternal Reefs told the BBC, and the company has now facilitated more than 2,000 such burials in the U.S.
Furton, the National Catholic Bioethics Center ethicist, noted that this kind of burial would violate the Church’s stated norms on cremation, which are that the ashes are to be buried together in a permanent resting place.
“These ideas you can spread your ashes across the ocean to feed the fish or other such things - that is completely rejected by the Church,” he said.
The Church is also primarily concerned with the person’s salvation, he said, and so the Church would discourage the use of remains for a principally environmental purpose, and would instead encourage a burial that reflects belief in the resurrection.
Another new method of using human remains for the environment that is rapidly gaining in popularity is human composting - that is, the breaking down of a human body to be used as compost for plants.
Recompose, a Seattle company that offers human composting services, told the BBC that the body is placed in a steel cylinder “together with wood chips, straw and cuttings from a legume plant called alfalfa. Recompose then controls the levels of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, oxygen, heat and moisture in the tube, to enable microbes and bacteria to thrive.”
After the process is complete, the resulting soil, which contains the human remains, can be spread at a conservation forest in the state or taken home by loved ones, the company said.
However, similarly to coral reef burials, human composting goes against the teachings of the Catholic Church, Pietrzyk said.
“It’s not the breaking down that’s the problem,” he said. The much bigger issues are the lack of a worthy vessel for and burial of the remains, and the treatment of the body as an object to be used for an environmental purpose, in a way that fails to recognize the unique dignity of the human body.
“Mulching and that sort of thing...really are born out of a modern environmentalist materialism,” Pietrzyk said.
“I think the Church will be sympathetic to the desire for...supporting the environment, and Pope Francis talks a great deal about this, but we can't do (human composting). I think it gives dishonor to the remains of those who have died and rejects that continued relationship between body and soul.”
The Catholic bishops of Colorado recently denounced a bill that would legalize human composting in the state. Governor Jared Polis signed the bill into law in May, making Colorado the second state after Washington to legalize the practice.
The Colorado bishops stated that human composting “does not promote human dignity. The Church’s objection is based on its belief that man is made in God’s image and likeness as a unified compositum of body and soul. While the Church does allow for cremation with limitations, the reduction of human remains into soil is not consistent with the Church’s theology of bodily resurrection and the promotion of human dignity and dominion over the earth.”
Furthermore, they said, there is “very limited research” on the impacts of human composting on the environment. They expressed concerns that the process may not be able to kill “certain pathogens, such as bacteria that causes anthrax.” The bishops also noted that the bill contained “no screening protocol to prevent bodies of those who have died from similar diseases from releasing pathogens into the environment.” They added that if the practice becomes standard, religious cemeteries and funeral homes may be required to offer a practice that goes against their beliefs.
Space launching of ashes
Perhaps the most bizarre form of “burial” a person could pursue is a “space burial” - that is, launching one’s ashes into outer space.
This service has been provided by U.S. company Celestis for the past 20 years.
Starting at just $2,500, customers of Celestis can choose to have their loved one’s remains launched into space and then returned to Earth, or, for a higher price, launched into orbit around the Earth, launched to the moon, or launched into deep space.
“The uniquely compelling Earth Orbit service places the Celestis spacecraft carrying cremated remains or DNA into orbit where it remains until it re-enters the atmosphere, harmlessly vaporizing like a shooting star in final tribute,” the company’s website states.
Several other companies offer similar space-launch memorial services. Nearly all of them launch a portion of the deceased person’s remains into space, while leaving the other portion with the family.
Pietrzyk said that if these methods launched the entirety of a person’s remains, it would be better than splitting them up, but it is unlikely that such methods of burial would be approved by the Church.
“Currently, the answer would be no. The bodies of the deceased should be buried in anticipation of their resurrection on the last day. I think the launching into space is also associated with a more materialist understanding of the human person, so I think it unlikely that the Church would allow such a thing,” he said.
An opportunity for the Church
The Church, including Catholic cemeteries, will undoubtedly face new challenges as the popularity of some of these newer methods of burial continue to rise.
Father H. Richard Rutherford, C.S.C., is a priest and professor emeritus of the University of Portland. He has studied and written extensively about Christian burials and funerals, including “The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals (1980, 2nd 1990).”
Rutherford told The Pillar that the Church should see the present moment as an opportunity to preach and teach more regularly on what the Church believes and why regarding death, burial and resurrection.
This way, people will already have a good grasp on what the Church teaches - and the reasons behind that teaching - when they are planning funerals for loved ones, Rutherford noted.
“Rules and regulations...don't hold water today people,” he said. “They won’t pay attention to them if you don't have the rationale for something.”
“There could be an emphasis on (Catholic teaching) even before death occurs, in the parishes,” Rutherford said.
Parishes could have an occasional workshop or seminar on what happens when someone dies, particularly for older people or those who are caregivers, he said. Catholic cemeteries could hold community events where people are invited to come to the cemetery and pray for the dead on days like Memorial Day, All Souls Day, or any time throughout the month of November, he said.
Parishes could also do something like post pictures of parishioners who have died in the past year as a way to continue remembering them in prayer, he said.
Priests could talk about death and resurrection in their homilies as it comes up in Scripture, he added. “[They could] talk about the centrality of who we are, as body and soul, what resurrection means and how the funeral is a part of our Catholic life.”
“If God had not become human,...there would be no (resurrection),” he said. “We take seriously the fact that we are human persons, into which reality God entered, by way of the incarnation, when God became one of us.”