Earlier this week the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a new instruction on the burial of the dead and on cremation, entitled “Ad resurgendum cum Christo” (“To Rise with Christ”). The instruction states that because of its belief in the resurrection of the body and because the human body is an essential part of a person’s identity, the church insists that the bodies of the deceased be treated with respect and laid to rest in a consecrated place.
Burial of the remains of the deceased is the church’s preferred option, but cremation is also permitted. In fact, the Catholic Church has permitted cremation since 1963, but only now has got around to issuing specific instructions as to what should be done with a person’s ashes.
The instruction forbids the scattering of ashes (there goes my plan to have my ashes scattered over the hallowed turf of Anfield!) as well as the growing practice of keeping cremated remains at home. Instead, the urn containing the person’s ashes should be placed in a sacred place – a columbarium or tomb – that is marked with the person’s name.
It’s no surprise that there has been strong reaction to this latest Vatican decree. Some have welcomed it, saying it was necessary to have clarity on the issue. Many have ridiculed it, suggesting that it demonstrates how out of touch the Vatican is. Others have said there are far more important issues the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith should be focussing on rather than what to do with people’s remains. Others see it as a joke, just as they do the whole idea of the raising up of the dead person’s body to new life on the last day. So, their response is, let the deceased’s family decide what they want to do with his or her ashes, and how they want to mark their loved one’s death.
One of the Vatican’s chief concerns in publishing this instruction is for the respectful disposition of the dead. “A human cadaver is not trash,” said Cardinal Muller at the press briefing, and an anonymous burial or scattering of ashes “is not compatible with the Christian faith. The name, the person, the concrete identity of the person” is important because God created each individual and calls each to himself.
There is no doubt that some people, a very few people, do not treat their loved one’s ashes in a respectful way, and putting them into items of jewellery or pendants or dispersing tiny quantities around the world to different family members does not sound edifying or even proper.
But it’s also true to say that almost everybody, whether they are Christian or not, do not see or treat the dead body of a loved one as “trash” simply to be disposed of as they fit. They do try to treat it in a respectful way, often in accordance with the specific wishes of the deceased person. Occasionally, how they do this may be unconventional, but that does not mean the deceased will be forgotten in time or will be cut off from God’s embrace or the possibility of resurrection. While reasonable in much of what it has to say, to many people this CDF instruction is all about laying extra burdens on grieving families at a most vulnerable time in their lives.
And when it comes to respecting the dead, a tradition the Vatican might look at is the use/abuse of saints’ relics. How respectful is it to the body of a saint to put his or her relics on display, or have fragments of bone or hair scattered here and there across the globe?
A fact, too, that cannot be ignored is that cremations are cheaper than burials when expenses like the cost of a grave and headstone are factored in, so they are going to rise in popularity in Ireland and elsewhere irrespective of what conditions the Vatican lays down.
And if priests or bishops take a heavy handed approach to implementing this new instruction, all it will do is reduce the number of funerals held in church and further alienate people from the faith.
That would be a disaster because the Catholic funeral liturgy – its solemnity, symbols, rituals – is one of the great treasures of the church, that offers wonderful solace and support to families in their grief.
Finally, how is this new policy going to be policed? Will grieving families be forced to spell out what they will do with their loved one’s ashes before a Catholic liturgy is permitted? And afterwards, what can a priest or parish clerk or busybody do to ensure that the ashes have been disposed of as the CDF wishes?
As church, we must always strive to do what’s best for the bereaved. We should always be careful not to place unnecessary burdens on people.