The Vatican’s doctrinal office issued new guidance Tuesday on the handling of ashes after cremation.
In a note issued Dec. 12, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF), responded to two questions from Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, president of the Italian bishops’ conference.
Fernández’s replies are likely to be scrutinized closely by clergy around the world who increasingly encounter bereaved families with specific requests concerning their loved ones’ ashes.
So, what is the background of the new ruling? And what does it say? The Pillar takes a look.
What’s the background?
In 1963, the Holy Office — the DDF’s predecessor — issued the Instruction Piam et Constantem, which ruled that cremation was not “an intrinsically evil act, opposed per se to the Christian religion.”
This marked an end to the Church’s outright opposition to the reduction of the dead’s bodies to ashes by fire. But the Instruction also reaffirmed the unbroken Christian custom of reverently burying the intact bodies of the faithful departed, pointing to the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
The change in discipline was incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which said: “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (Can. 1176 § 3).
In the decades that followed, cremation grew in popularity throughout the Western world, presenting new questions about if and how the practice could be harmonized with Catholic teaching.
The Church responded to the changing situation by permitting certain adaptations to the rules. In 1997, for example, the Vatican’s liturgy dicastery granted an indult, or concession, allowing diocesan bishops in the U.S. to permit cremated remains to be present at a funeral Mass.
The Catholic Church in Poland is currently revising its regulations, working with the Vatican dicastery on issues including the correct practices at a funeral where the cremated remains are those of a priest or bishop.
In 2016, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — as the DDF was previously called — issued the Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo, which outlined regulations concerning ashes.
“In order that every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism be avoided, 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,” it said.
On Oct. 30 this year, Cardinal Zuppi wrote to the DDF raising two questions about the preservation of ashes after cremation.
In the letter, Zuppi noted that he had established a commission in his Archdiocese of Bologna to consider how to respond to the growing number of people wanting to scatter their loved one’s ashes in a natural setting.
The commission is also examining how to ensure that families are not discouraged from burying their relatives simply because of the lower cost of scattering ashes, and what advice the Church should give in cases where the term for the preservation of ashes expires.
Zuppi posed the following two questions, as summarized by the DDF:
1. Taking into account the canonical prohibition against scattering the ashes of the deceased, is it possible to prepare a defined and permanent sacred place for the commingled accumulation and preservation of the ashes of the baptized, indicating the basic details of each person so as not to lose the memory of their names, similar to what occurs in ossuaries, where the mineralized remains of the deceased are cumulatively deposited and preserved?
2. Can a family be allowed to keep a portion of their family member’s ashes in a place that is significant for the history of the deceased?
What does the doctrine office say?
In the note, approved by Pope Francis at a Dec. 9 audience, Cardinal Fernández presented a 400-word preamble, restating the Church’s teaching on bodily resurrection, and then answered the two questions in the affirmative but with noteworthy nuances.
To the first question, he replied that “a defined and permanent sacred place can be set aside for the commingled accumulation and preservation of the ashes of deceased baptized persons, indicating the identity of each person so as not to lose the memory of their names.”
To the second, he said that “the ecclesiastical authority, in compliance with current civil norms, may consider and evaluate a request by a family to preserve in an appropriate way a minimal part of the ashes of their relative in a place of significance for the history of the deceased person, provided that every type of pantheistic, naturalistic, or nihilistic misunderstanding is ruled out and also provided that the ashes of the deceased are kept in a sacred place.”
Vatican News said Dec. 12 that the DDF had told it that “the intervention and assessment of the ecclesiastical authority is not only canonical but also pastoral in nature, to help the family discern what choices to make, while taking all considerations into account.”
It also said that the second question had “emerged from a dialogue between bishops from several different countries to which Cardinal Zuppi gave voice,” noting that the division of ashes is forbidden by some civil authorities.
“The dicastery’s response considered the possibility from a theological rather than a civil point of view, as was later clarified in the reply,” Vatican News said.
Fernández, who was named doctrinal prefect in July, explained the reasoning for the decisions in the preamble.
He noted that the 2016 Instruction said that “ashes must be kept in a sacred place, such as a cemetery, or in an area dedicated to this purpose, provided that it has been so designated by the ecclesiastical authority.”
The pastoral reason for this regulation was that the reservation of the ashes in a sacred place ensured that the deceased would be remembered and included in the prayers of the Christian community. Fernández said that the regulation remains in effect today.
The cardinal then reflected on what the Church teaches about how the resurrection of the dead will take place.
“Our faith tells us that we will be raised with the same bodily identity, which is material (like every creature on earth), even though that matter will be transfigured, freed from the limitations of this world,” he wrote.
But he said that the transformation “does not imply the recuperation of the identical particles of matter that once formed the human being’s body.”
“Therefore, the body of the resurrected person will not necessarily consist of the same elements that it had before it died. Since it is not a simple revivification of the corpse, the resurrection can occur even if the body has been totally destroyed or dispersed,” he wrote.
“This helps us understand why, in many cinerary urns, the ashes of the deceased are conserved together and are not stored separately.”
But given that ashes are the remains of a unique human life, they are to be treated with “an attitude of sacred respect” and conserved “in a sacred place suitable for prayer,” sometimes located near the churches visited by loved ones.
Fernández’s response is being interpreted as a loosening of the Church’s rules on cremation. It fits within the broader pattern of adaptation to emerging practices. As it is far from exhaustive, other clarifications regarding cremation are likely to follow in the coming years.