Honouring the Dead: More respect or just more rules?

Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo
 regarding the burial of the deceased
and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation

  1. To rise with Christ, we must die with Christ: we must “be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). With the Instruction Piam et Constantem of 5 July 1963, the then Holy Office established that “all necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed”, adding however that cremation is not “opposed per se to the Christian religion” and that no longer should the sacraments and funeral rites be denied to those who have asked that they be cremated, under the condition that this choice has not been made through “a denial of Christian dogmas, the animosity of a secret society, or hatred of the Catholic religion and the Church”.[1] Later this change in ecclesiastical discipline was incorporated into the Code of Canon Law (1983) and the Code of Canons of Oriental Churches (1990).

During the intervening years, the practice of cremation has notably increased in many countries, but simultaneously new ideas contrary to the Church’s faith have also become widespread. Having consulted the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and numerous Episcopal Conferences and Synods of Bishops of the Oriental Churches, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has deemed opportune the publication of a new Instruction, with the intention of underlining the doctrinal and pastoral reasons for the preference of the burial of the remains of the faithful and to set out norms pertaining to the conservation of ashes in the case of cremation.

  1. The resurrection of Jesus is the culminating truth of the Christian faith, preached as an essential part of the Paschal Mystery from the very beginnings of Christianity: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve” (1 Cor 15:3-5).

Through his death and resurrection, Christ freed us from sin and gave us access to a new life, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rm 6:4). Furthermore, the risen Christ is the principle and source of our future resurrection: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep […] For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:20-22).
It is true that Christ will raise us up on the last day; but it is also true that, in a certain way, we have already risen with Christ. In Baptism, actually, we are immersed in the death and resurrection of Christ and sacramentally assimilated to him: “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col 2:12). United with Christ by Baptism, we already truly participate in the life of the risen Christ (cf. Eph 2:6).
Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning. The Christian vision of death receives privileged expression in the liturgy of the Church: “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven”.[2] By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. In our own day also, the Church is called to proclaim her faith in the resurrection: “The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live”.[3]

  1. Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places.[4]

In memory of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, the mystery that illumines the Christian meaning of death,[5] burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.[6]
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.[7]
By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body,[8] 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.[9] 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.
Furthermore, burial in a cemetery or another sacred place adequately corresponds to the piety and respect owed to the bodies of the faithful departed who through Baptism have become temples of the Holy Spirit and in which “as instruments and vessels the Spirit has carried out so many good works”.[10]
Tobias, the just, was praised for the merits he acquired in the sight of God for having buried the dead,[11] and the Church considers the burial of dead one of the corporal works of mercy.[12]
Finally, the burial of the faithful departed in cemeteries or other sacred places encourages family members and the whole Christian community to pray for and remember the dead, while at the same time fostering the veneration of martyrs and saints.
Through the practice of burying the dead in cemeteries, in churches or their environs, Christian tradition has upheld the relationship between the living and the dead and has opposed any tendency to minimize, or relegate to the purely private sphere, the event of death and the meaning it has for Christians.

  1. In circumstances when cremation is chosen because of sanitary, economic or social considerations, this choice must never violate the explicitly-stated or the reasonably inferable wishes of the deceased faithful. The Church raises no doctrinal objections to this practice, since cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life. Thus cremation, in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body.[13]

The Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased. Nevertheless, cremation is not prohibited, “unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine”.[14]
In the absence of motives contrary to Christian doctrine, the Church, after the celebration of the funeral rite, accompanies the choice of cremation, providing the relevant liturgical and pastoral directives, and taking particular care to avoid every form of scandal or the appearance of religious indifferentism.

  1. 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.

From the earliest times, Christians have desired that the faithful departed become the objects of the Christian community’s prayers and remembrance. Their tombs have become places of prayer, remembrance and reflection. The faithful departed remain part of the Church who believes “in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church”.[15]
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.

  1. For the reasons given above, the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted. Only in grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature, may the Ordinary, in agreement with the Episcopal Conference or the Synod of Bishops of the Oriental Churches, concede permission for the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence. Nonetheless, the ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained regarding the circumstances of such a conservation.
  1. 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. These courses of action cannot be legitimized by an appeal to the sanitary, social, or economic motives that may have occasioned the choice of cremation.
  1. When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith, a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law.[16]

The Sovereign Pontiff Francis, in the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect on 18 March 2016, approved the present Instruction, adopted in the Ordinary Session of this Congregation on 2 March 2016, and ordered its publication.
Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 15 August 2016, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Gerhard Card. Müller
+ Luis F. Ladaria, S.I.
Titular Archbishop of Thibica
[1] AAS 56 (1964), 822-823.
[2] Roman Missal, Preface I for the Dead.
[3] Tertullian, De Resurrectione carnis, 1,1: CCL 2, 921.
[4] Cf. CIC, can. 1176, § 3, can. 1205; CCEO, can. 876, § 3; can. 868.
[5] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1681.
[6] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2300.
[7] Cf. 1 Cor 15:42-44; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1683.
[8] Cf. St. Augustine, De cura pro mortuis gerenda, 3, 5; CSEL 41, 628:
[9] Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 14.
[10] St. Augustine, De cura pro mortuis gerenda, 3, 5: CSEL 41, 627.
[11] Cf. Tb 2:9; 12:12.
[12] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2300.
[13] Cf. Holy Office, Instruction Piam et costantem, 5 July 1963: AAS 56 (1964) 822.
[14] CIC, can. 1176 § 3; cf. CCEC, can. 876 § 3.
[15]Catechism of the Catholic Church, 962.
[16]CIC, can. 1184; CCEO, can.876, § 3.

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  1. W O'Brien says:

    For years (centuries) we have take various body parts of the deceased and encased them in jewelry (reliquaries) to show them to the faithful or to kiss the jeweled containers. This desire to share the “loved one” with others is now forbidden. What shall we do with all the relics of the saints?

  2. Ian Evans says:

    As the priest of the family, it was my honour and privilege to celebrate the Requiem Mass of my father earlier this year. He was cremated shortly afterwards. I returned his ashes to Wicklow, a place he loved, where after a Liturgy of the Word along with family and friends, we proceeded to go to sea and sank his ashes off the coast at the site of his favourite fishing spot. It was in effect a ‘burial at sea’. It was a task undertaken in faith and in love and with respect to my father, attended by many who were unable to travel to Scotland for his Requiem Mass. That is all I have to say in light of this recent instruction from the CDF.

  3. I think one problem in some parts of the world is the cost of burial plots and reliquary storage places. Sometimes rent must be paid. You can understand the appeal of cremation, especially for poor families. I watched a TV show about it. Not sure where it was, maybe South America or even Italy? You had to pay continual rent for the graves of your deceased family members! Crazy. The Church ought to do something about this where it is an issue.

  4. Once again the hierarchy and the Curia show themselves to be the worst kind of literalists in their understanding and the sensus fidelium lead the way again. To quote Gandhi, “There go my people and I must catch up with them as I am their leader.”

  5. It strikes me that a lot of people who are fond of referring to the pope`s preference for sheep-smelling clergy know little or nothing about sheep or the work of shepherds. Sheep are silly, weak and cowardly creatures that need guidance and protection from all sorts of things. They need to be protected/prevented from straying into danger on the road, and from predators. The wolf of the past comes to mind, but today packs of savage dogs are probably a greater danger. Then, there are urban-based gangs who steal sheep, by no means a thing of the distant pastoral past, as any one who owns sheep today will tell you. Against disease and these the shepherd needs his wits about him. It would be a strange sort of shepherd who merely followed the sheep, into whatever danger they were making. The shepherd leads his flock, or guides them where he wants them to go. A lot of the quarrel I think lies there-in the way the church exercises its functions to guide..

  6. Paddy Coady says:

    I agree fully with the sentiments expressed by Ned Quinn. I was led to believe as Brian De Burka says that all of God’s creation is ‘Sacred’.
    I can think of many more important’ real issues’ for the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to be concerned about.

  7. There has been a lot of scattering of ashes of loved ones since 1963 and now they tell us that it would be better to place the ashes in sacred ground. They live in a parrallel universe far removed from the realities of people’s lives. None of my family have been cremated but I totally respect others preference for the wishes of their loved ones.

  8. Where is the “smell of the sheep” in Cardinal Muller’s script? Would it not be as appropriate for the shepherds of Christ people to grant the same respect to to living.

  9. Very recently the family of a most devoted parishioner who had worked and given of himself tirelessly for the parish asked that his ashes be scattered in our parish grounds. They planted a tree, with some flowers growing around it, and we gathered, about 20 people, family and friends, a year after his death, as his ashes were scattered on the grounds of the parish he had loved so much and dedicated himself to. The para liturgy was taken from the ritual for funerals and other resources. All present, myself included, felt it was a meaningful, prayerful, and a moving para liturgy. This was said to me by several of those who were present.
    I have just read the CDF Instruction regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation. 5 times we are told in this document that burial or ashes must be in cemetery or ‘sacred place(s)’. For me, all God’s world, all God’s creation is sacred.

  10. Mary Vallely says:

    ‘and taking particular care to avoid every form of scandal…’ ( From point No 4) The avoidance of scandal, eh? How very important that is in the eyes of Catholic officialdom and what suffering this obsession with it has caused to countless, countless bodies and souls in the past. I confess to being totally bewildered by this ruling on cremation and can well understand why it will just be ignored and be another nail in the RCC’s coffin. Bury it wherever.

  11. Ned Quinn says:

    When I worked on Merseyside, I scattered the ashes of seafarers and dockers at sea and in the Mersey. I even scattered ashes on the “holy ground” of Anfield Stadium. I’m afraid Cardinal Muller has missed the train on this. The scattering of ashes has been going on for years. The custom, carried out at the request of the deceased, brings comfort and consolation to the bereaved.
    The CDF breaks its long silence with this incredible statement. The public reaction has been predictable. Bemusement, amusement and amazement. With all the troubles facing the church and the world, is this what causes them most concern? Like Martha, they worry and fret about so many things. The Cardinal would be better employed if he apologised to all the people his “holy” office have hurt over the years.

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