A columbariam in Singapore. According to the instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ashes of the departed may not be placed in a domestic residence and the ashes may not be divided among family members.

On Oct 25, the Holy See Press Office presented the Instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled Ad resurgendum cum Christo (ARC), regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation.

The Press Office highlighted that with regard to the practice of conserving ashes, no specific canon law exists. For this reason, some episcopal conferences have addressed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, raising troubling questions regarding the practices of conserving a funerary urn in the home or in places other than the cemetery (columbarium in the Singapore context), and especially that of dispersing ashes in nature.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published this new Instruction with a dual aim: to reiterate the doctrinal and pastoral reasons for the preference for the burial of the dead, and secondly, to issue rules for guidance on the conservation of ashes in the case of cremation.

This recent Instruction regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation issued by Rome have brought to the forefront questions regarding the practice of the cremation of a body and burial at sea. Thus, this is an opportune time to renew catechesis on these questions.

a. Why is it necessary for us to care for the remains of our departed loved ones?

The Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) provides us with an excellent summary: “The Church’s belief in the sacredness of the human body and the resurrection of the dead has traditionally found expression in the care taken to prepare the bodies of the deceased for burial.” (OCF 411)

“This is the body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. This is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing. Indeed, the human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it is hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body. Thus, the Church’s reverence and care for the body grows out of a reverence and concern for the person whom the Church now commends to the care of God.” (OCF 412)

As Christians, our faith reminds us that life extends beyond this temporal life. Through our baptism, we are united with Christ, sharing in His life, death, resurrection and glory. Death does not have the last word:

“At the death of a Christian, whose life began in the waters of baptism and strengthened at the Eucharistic table, the Church interceded on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end, nor does it break the bonds forged in life.” (OCF 4)

In our belief in the resurrection of the body, the mortal remains of a person is incensed at the funeral Mass with due reverence and care shown for those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.

“Since in baptism the body was marked with the seal of the Trinity and became the temple of the Holy Spirit, Christians respect and honour the bodies of the dead and the places where they rest.” (OCF 19)

b. Why did the Church not allow cremation in the early days?

Previously only burial was allowed in the early Church as those against the Church had a practice of imposing cremation of the bodies of the faithful and the scattering of their ashes. This was done to mock the Church’s belief in the resurrection of the body.

By burying the bodies or cremated remains of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity. She cannot, therefore, condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the “prison” of the body. (ARC 3)

c. Can we still place cremated remains in the sea?

Burial at sea of cremated remains differs from scattering of the ashes. Care should be taken that the cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come. This includes the use of an appropriate and worthy vessel to contain the ashes heavy enough to be set into its final resting place, the manner in which they are carried, and the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. (OCF 417)

d. What prayers should we use?

The Rites for “Burial of the cremated remains of a body” may be found in the appendix to the Order of Christian Funerals. This appendix recommends that when cremation is chosen, the body be cremated after the Funeral, thus allowing for the presence of the body at the Funeral Mass.

These ashes are mortal remains. They should be reverently interred as soon as possible as a sign of our continued care and reverence, and our trust and expectation that God in His mercy will raise the dead to new life. Pastors should take note that catechesis on the subject of cremation should emphasise that “the cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the corporeal remains of a human body. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition.” (OCF 416)

Thus the cremated remains of the body may be properly buried at sea in an urn, the coffin or other container in which they have been carried to the place of committal. When a body, or the cremated remains of a body are buried at sea, the Committal prayer found at number 406 § 4 is used:

Lord God, by the power of your Word you stilled the chaos of the primeval seas, you made the raging waters of the Flood subside, and calmed the storm on the sea of Galilee. As we commit the body (earthly remains) of our brother (sister) N. to the deep, grant him/her peace and tranquillity until that day when he/she and all who believe in you will be raised to the glory of new life promised in the waters of baptism. We ask this through Christ our Lord. R. Amen.

e. Can we keep the cremated remains of our loved ones in our home? Can we distribute the cremated remains amongst relatives as a memento? Can we convert the cremated remains of our loved ones into jewellery or gems?

The conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted and the ashes may not be divided among various family members.

ARC also clarifies that ashes of the deceased may not be preserved as mementos, as pieces of jewellery or other objects. “These courses of action cannot be legitimised by an appeal to the sanitary, social, or economic motives that may have occasioned the choice of cremation”. (ARC 7)

The Order of Christian Funerals also offers us a clear response; that the keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires. (OCF 417). n

From the Archdiocesan Liturgy Commission

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