CDF on cremation & conservation of ashes

Nov 3, 2016 | 3 comments

Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation, 25.10.2016

This is an edited version of the Instrument.

The document is addressed to the bishops of the Catholic Church, but directly regards the life of all faithful, since in many countries there has been a continual increase in the number of cremations rather than burial, and it is likely that in the near future cremation will be considered a commonplace practice. This development is accompanied by another phenomenon: the conservation of ashes in domestic environments, as commemorative items or their dispersal in nature.

Cremation is regulated by the Code of Canon Law, which states: “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine”. Despite this rule, the practice of cremation is widespread within the Catholic Church. With regard to the practice of conserving ashes, no specific canon law exists. Questions have been raised regarding the practices of conserving a funerary urn in the home or in places other than the cemetery, and especially that of dispersing ashes in nature.

The CDF have published the 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.

The Church recommends strongly that the bodies of the deceased be buried in the cemetery or in another sacred place. In the remembrance of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, inhumation continues to be the most suitable form for expressing faith and the hope in bodily resurrection. Furthermore, the burial in cemeteries or other sacred places responds to the piety and respect due to the bodies of the deceased faithful. Taking care of the bodies of the departed, the Church confirms her faith in resurrection and distances herself from attitudes and rites that see death as the definitive annulment of the person, a phase in the process of reincarnation or as a fusion of the soul with the universe.

If for legitimate reasons the body is cremated, the ashes must be conserved in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or in a church, or in an area specifically dedicated for the purpose. The conservation of ashes in the home is not permitted. Only in the case of grave and exceptional circumstances, in agreement with the episcopal conference or the Synod of bishops, may permission be granted for the conservation of ashes in the domestic environment. To avoid any form of pantheistic, naturalistic or nihilistic misunderstanding, it is not permitted to scatter ashes in the air, on earth, in water or in any other way, or to convert the cremated ashes into any form of commemorative item.

It is hoped that this new Instruction may contribute to making Christian faithful more aware of their dignity as children of God. We are faced with a new challenge for the evangelisation of death. Acceptance on the part of the human person of being a creature, not destined for disappearance, demands that God is recognised as the origin and destiny of human existence: from the earth we come and to the earth we return, awaiting resurrection. It is therefore necessary to evangelise the meaning of death in the light of faith in the Risen Christ, ardent furnace of love, that purifies and recreates, awaiting the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. As Tertullian wrote, ‘The resurrection of the dead is Christian men’s confidence: by believing it we are what we claim to be’.

The CDF emphasised that the practice of burial, on account of its high anthropological and symbolic meaning, harmonises on the one hand with the mystery of resurrection and, on the other, with Christian teaching on the dignity of the human body.

As affirmed in the Gospel accounts, between the pre-Paschal Jesus and the risen Jesus, there are simultaneously discontinuity and continuity. Discontinuity, because the body of Jesus after resurrection is in a new state and has properties that are no longer those of the body in its earthly condition, to the point that neither Mary Magdalene nor the disciples recognise Him. But at the same, the body of the risen Jesus is that body that was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified and buried, and bears the traces. Therefore, it is impossible to deny the real continuity between the buried body and the risen body, a sign that historical existence, both that of Jesus and our own, is not a game; it is not abolished by eschatology, but rather is transfigured. Christian resurrection is not therefore a reincarnation of the soul in an indifferent body; nor is it an ex nihilo recreation. The Church has never ceased to affirm that it is precisely the body in which we live and die that will be revived on the final day. Besides, it is the reason why the Christian people, guided by the sensus fidei, likes to venerate the relics of saints. These are not a simple memorial kept on a shelf, but are instead linked to the identity of the saint, once the Temple of the Holy Spirit, and await resurrection. Certainly, we are aware that even if the material continuity should be interrupted, as is the case in cremation, God is powerful enough to reconstitute our body precisely from our immortal soul alone, which guarantees the continuity of our identity between the moment of death and the moment of resurrection. But it remains that, at the symbolic level – and man is a symbolic animal – continuity is expressed in the most appropriate way by means of burial, ‘a grain of wheat [that] falls in to the earth’, rather than by cremation, which destroys the body brutally.

Christianity, religion of incarnation and resurrection, promotes what the Instruction calls ‘the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity’. For Christian faith, the body is not all the person but it is an integral and essential part of his or her identity. Indeed, the body is like the sacrament of the soul that is expressed in it and by means of it. As such, the body forms part of the intrinsic dignity of the human person and the respect due to it. This is why burying the dead is, already in the Old Testament, one of the works of mercy with regard to one’s neighbour. The integral ecology that the contemporary world yearns for should therefore begin with respecting the body, which is not an object for manipulation according to our will for power, but rather our humble companion for eternity.

The scattering of ashes is a decision that often depends on the idea that with death the human being is completely annihilated, as if it were its final destiny. At times it may even proceed from mere superficiality, from the desire to obscure or privatise that which refers to death, or from the spread of more than questionable tastes. It may be that the decision to conserve in one’s own home the ashes of a dear departed relative (parent, wife, husband, child) is inspired by the desire for closeness and piety, that it facilitates memory and prayer. It is not the most frequent reason, but in some case it may be this way. There is, however, the risk that it may produce forgetfulness or lack of respect, especially once the first generation has passed, or may give rise to unhealthy forms of mourning. But above all it must be observed that the departed faithful form part of the Church, they are the object of prayer and commemoration by the living, and it is right that their remains be received by the Church and conserved with respect throughout the centuries in the places that the Church blesses for the purpose, without being removed from the memory and prayer of other relatives and the community.

Read full document HERE


  1. Teresa Mee

    The CDF has promulgated a document that makes little sense, and is full of contradictions. The CDF is also being disrespectful in presenting this carelessly worded and theologically suspect document to the Church. What, for example, is the thinking behind presenting the human person as a thing,’it’, and human remains as ‘a commemorative item’?

    This document should withdrawn immediately with apologies, as unworthy.

    To promote mutual respect between CDF and the Church at large, it would be important at this point in time to focus on promoting reform and renewal of the Church united in the spirit of Vatican II.

  2. Martin Murray

    This latest directive to its credit emphasises the respect and dignity due to the human body. However I think it is really a matter of opinion, context and cultural practice as to whether or not this can only be achieved by burial.

    The document begins by saying that canon law “earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed”. That would have been enough. As Denis Bradley put it in the Belfast Telegraph (27/10/2016), the Vatican needs to stop issuing diktat’s that gets up peoples’ noses.

    And this leaves priests in a difficult position with yet another reason for refusing people the comfort, support and service of the local church community in their time of grief.

    I also think the CDF is jumping to conclusions in judging the motivation of people who choose cremation.

    The theological grounds they argue seem in places dubious and self contradictory. For example it states that “the Church has never ceased to affirm that it is precisely the body in which we live and die that will be revived on the final day.” But then goes on to say “we are aware that even if the material continuity should be interrupted, as is the case in cremation, God is powerful enough to reconstitute our body precisely from our immortal soul alone, which guarantees the continuity of our identity between the moment of death and the moment of resurrection.” This fails to recognise that throughout our lives the cells of our bodies are being reconstituted on a regular basis. CS Lewis likened it to the water that constitutes a waterfall. We go to look at a waterfall, but it is never the same waterfall at any given moment in time. Its the same with our bodies. We are more than the sum of our parts, so there is no need for a fixation on being reunited with the exact cells that made up our body at the time of death, which will be a relieve to those of us who’s bodies aren’t what they used to be.

  3. Martin Murray

    I also think the CDF’s continuing fear of panethism is getting a bit dated. Of course God as creator transends creation, but our Catholic belief is in the presence of God in all people and in all things. Science affirms our belief in a common source and our total inter-relatedness. In Christian terms we all come from God and are returning to God. In the end only Christ. So of course it is about fusion. Trinity argues Rohr, is the definition of unity (fusion) that protects diversity. As Rohr would put it, no longer one, but not two either. To quote, “The more one gives oneself in creative union with another, the more one becomes one’s self. This is mirrored in the Trinity: perfect giving and perfect receiving between three who are all still completely themselves.” ALL participate in this perfect giving and receiving as the body of Christ; or as we say in our prayers “through Christ our Lord”.


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