The Vatican has issued a new Instruction, “Regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation.”
Beginning with the acknowledgement that in 1963, it first gave permission for Catholics to be cremated,
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”
nevertheless, the document laments that
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.
The new guidelines reassert the church’s preference for burial, but also its allowance for cremation. After cremation,
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. …
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.
Such “unfitting and superstitious practices” include keeping the ashes at home (except in exceptional circumstances), dividing the remains among family members, scattering the remains at land or sea, or preserving the ashes in jewelry or other mementos.
In reporting the issuance of the Instruction, the BBC commented that
Britain and some other western countries face a shortage of land in which to bury bodies.
There are concerns this announcement will not only place financial burdens on Catholic families but also increase the pressure on cemeteries, half of which are expected to run out of space within the next 20 years.
However, the Instruction is concerned that
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
and goes so far as to stipulate that
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.