CDF Issues Instruction on Cremains

Rocco Palmo (Whispers in the Loggia) has posted a helpful report, including the full English-translation text, of the CDF’s newly released instruction, Ad resurgendum cum Christo regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation . This new document explicitly seeks to clarify and reinforce existing canonical and liturgical (ritual) norms already in force. But the Congregation notes that in many regions cremation is markedly increasing, making a reiteration of the norms and their theological bases advisable.

The Roman Catholic prohibition against cremation in modern times sought to counter philosophical views and political forces explicitly, even mockingly, rejecting Christian belief in bodily resurrection. The Vatican’s 1963 lifting of a general ban on cremation, as well as canons (1983 codex, etc.) and instructions up through the one newly issued today, make the clearly expressed belief in Christ’s and all faithful believers’ bodily resurrection from the dead the fundamental theological criterion, linking it with the theology of Christian baptism (the integral, total person–body, soul, and spirit–as the subject of justification and ongoing sanctification). The CDF’s present instruction makes explicit emergent beliefs and practices contradictory to the church’s doctrine:

She [the church] 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. (no. 3)

While that list clearly is not intended to be exhaustive in scope or explanation, the “fusion with Mother Nature or the universe” would seem to point to the reasons people often desire the scattering of their ashes over particular lands, mountains, or waters. Indeed, the seventh article of the document proscribes pastoral accommodations for the spreading/scattering of cremains, which might give even apparent credence to “pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism;” nor may the ashes be “preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry, or other objects” (no. 7). Likewise strictly prohibited is any dividing up of the ashes among family or their reservation in a home, although culturally sensitive exceptions allowing domestic repose of cremains are left open to the local ordinary, presuming “agreement with the Episcopal Conference or Synod of Bishops of the Oriental Churches” (no. 6). The instruction does acknowledge positive motives for cremation–sanitary, social, economic–without elaborating on them. The detailed, positive instruction for burial of the body or deposition of the cremains in a consecrated location is doctrinal.

For his part, Palmo closes his brief introduction to the full text by commenting on the problem that may well have helped spur the new instruction, namely, the “backstory” related to the Italian bishops conference’s release of a new translation of the funeral rites, including for the first time prayers at a crematorium and during a Mass with cremains (quite “behind the curve,” it would seem, as other conferences, such as the USCCB, years ago issued an appendix on cremation for the Order of Christian Funerals, based on a 1997 Vatican indult). Palmo avers:

As with any binding Curial document governing the life of the church, the following was explicitly approved by the Pope and published on his orders…. Yet as the note’s most prominent proviso – an almost airtight prohibition on the scattering of ashes following a funeral liturgy – notably overrides a 2008 guidance on the question from the Italian bishops, who will enforce the new norms is anyone’s guess.

That clerics of all ranks often make adjustments to the Order of Christian Funerals is a simple, universal (and thus, catholic, one might say!) fact. To give but one example: To my own observation (especially over 15 years in the Archdiocese of Boston) the express prohibition on eulogizing during the Funeral Mass often proved to be ignored at funerals for clerics and prominent public officials. The contradiction was not lost on well-educated lay Catholic faithful who at times wrote to the Boston Globe or the archdiocesan newspaper protesting a double standard, as they had been for years smarting under the prohibition of  such eulogizing or, in another problem cited, the singing of “Danny Boy” at funerals. I bring this all up to note how high emotions run, how deeply felt are ever-evolving bodily customs around death that do not lend themselves to didactic explanations, least of all in the pastoral moment of any given funeral. The pointed existential question mark that death places on everyone’s ongoing interpretation of life signals how intertwined are all dimensions of our bodily existence: physical/natural, social/cultural, and traditional. That Christians from the start have struggled with the dark reality of the corpse (its decomposition “unto dust”) in light of professed belief in Christ’s resurrection is evident in Paul’s extensive discussion of the problem in the fifteen chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians. Historical research has provided fascinating accounts of Christian beliefs and burials practices across eras and locations.

Certainly the disposition of the corpse (whether embalmed or not, buried in the ground or placed in a tomb or mausoleum, cremains buried in a cemetery or placed in a columbarium) ranks among the most important considerations at the time of a funeral or in preparation for one’s own death. As scientific polling data and individual, on-the-ground observations continue to give mounting evidence for how “unchurched” Americans, including Roman Catholics, are rapidly becoming, the hegemony of cultural, including economic, mores and priorities promises to make the church’s scriptural, doctrinal, and sacramental/ritual reasons for requiring that the corpse or cremains be present for the funeral mass and that cremains be deposed in a columbarium or cemetery an increasing pastoral challenge. In my own pastoral experience, I have dealt with daily-mass-going Catholics who insisted on having the cremains of a family member enshrined on the mantlepiece in their living room. Research for my book on worship and healing (done nearly a decade ago) disclosed how widespread a phenomenon the “celebration of life” (as opposed to a funeral) is becoming across denominational lines, with funeral directors scrambling to accommodate emerging ritual creations and, often, explicit rejections of Christian liturgical symbols and customs. The complexity (richness?) of the field expands along the lines of both practical and even theological enthusiasm for new cosmologies (sometimes in relation to the sacraments or at least baptism and eucharist … thus pointing toward funerals). For the latter, blanket condemnations of “naturalism” or “pantheism” may well prove unacceptable.

The CDF’s new instruction goes out to a universal church. Local questions, needs, and yes, arguments, must play out with careful attention to the theological-anthropological richness and wisdom of the church’s tradition. Still, the tradition can only remain lively (“living tradition”) if historically situated, thus requiring accurate knowledge of the past and astute analysis of the present. The pastoral-liturgical opportunity lies in pursuing constructive ways for forming the faithful in the tradition. Perhaps Pray Tell readers might have practices, ideas, or proposals to share.

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42 comments

  1. A historical tangent on the issue of funeral eulogies in the Archdiocese of Boston:

    People forget that Abp Bernard Law came into Boston in 1984 with some reformist tendencies* that rubbed locals the wrong way. (His first two big ones: (1) banning multiple Saturday evening Masses without sufficient need (a sufficient need would be, for example, a non-English vernacular – that reform had legs; (2) trying to ban regular bingo for parish fundraising – that reform had less legs.) The eulogy issue became a subject of a tempest in 2001 for the funeral of Rep. Joseph Moakley, dean of the MA congressional delegation, when the chancery let it be known that only one remembrance would be permitted during the Mass after Communion.

    * The major reason for his appointment was to deal with the rifts in the RCAB that occurred during his predecessor’s tenure arising from Boston’s tribalisms (including how Cdl Madeiros was isolated by some of his own presbyterate because he wasn’t part of the local dominant tribe, as it were). In the Church, episcopal appointments are often fighting the last war.

  2. I think these guidelines are a much needed corrective because of the proliferation of denial-of-death practices that are very much at odds with our beliefs as Catholics. Many people do things sincerely that are quite disrespectful of the human body after death, treating it like trash or sentimentalizing it or trying to “erase” it.

    The only thing I wish had been discussed and wasn’t is why the practice of creating a “memento” out of cremated remains stored in jewelry or the like is wrong (which I believe it is) and yet the age-old practice of keeping and venerating relics of the saints (often a body part) is right and does not negate what we believe.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      Rita, who are these people?: “Many people do things sincerely that are quite disrespectful of the human body after death, treating it like trash or sentimentalizing it or trying to “erase” it.”

      1. @Abe Rosenzweig:
        I often wonder myself. But the existence of so many novelty urns tells me that there’s an industry, so they must be out there. The existence of laws against dumping human remains says people do it.

      2. @Rita Ferrone:
        Yeah, but are they dumping those bodies, as you put it, with sincerity? Catholic critiques of the ritual practices of others often strike me as violating the sacred law governing those who live in glass houses. I mean, I am repulsed by the ritual act of exposing a dead body for viewing by mourners. I totally disagree with the practice of embalming corpses. Putting bodies in lined, airtight caskets that won’t rot bothers me. The whole “incorruptible corpses” things that Catholics like strikes me as kind of silly. I do, though, totally dig the Sedlec Ossuary (it’s so KVLT).

        Point being, Catholics believe a lot of (to me) dumb stuff with a lot of sincerity: so do people with their novelty urns.

  3. Donny was a good bowler, and a good man. He was…he was one of us. He was a man who loved the outdoors, and bowling, and as a surfer he explored the beaches of southern California from La Jolla to Leo Carillo, and up to Pismo. He died.. he died as so many young men of his generation before his time, and in your wisdom, Lord, you took him. Just as you took so many bright, flowering young men at Khe San, and Lan Doc, and Hill 364. These young men gave their lives, and so did Donny. Donny who loved bowling. And so, Theodore Donald Karabotsos.. in accordance with what we think your dying wishes might well have been….we commit your final mortal remains to the bosom of the Pacific Ocean, which you loved so well. Goodnight, sweet prince.

  4. A chance for the secular press to headline “Vatican bans people from keeping loved ones ashes at home.”
    PR faux pas.

  5. It seems a bit contradictory to hold that bodies should not be broken up and scattered, when bodies of saints have been broken up, scattered, fought over, kept in all sorts of places, all with church approval, even encouragement, for centuries.

  6. This would all be well and good if the Church and its huge point of death and burial industry did not stand to gain monetarily from this pastoral decision. Catholic Cemetaries are struggling with income these days as Catholics, like so many others, are choosing to inter their loved ones in the least expensive way possible. The cost of burying a casket these days is unreal and financially struggling families sitting in a funeral parlor getting the latest models and being upsold on options feel as if they are sitting in a marketing prison for many. If this burial mandate is so important to the Church, then have the Church pay for it and get out of the business where they amass huge sums of money on the backs of families at an extremely vulnerable time. If it is money the Church needs then revise the Roman Missal or the Bible and accept the windfall.

    This mandate from the CDF is not a financially neutral ruling. I will probably receive a phone call from my parents who will tell me that they were told they have to move back into the Catholic “mailboxes” (what they call the place where the cremains are held) which cost 2000 dollars more that the Wesleyan Church’s “mailboxes” near their home.

    I do continue to appreciate the reining in of the eulogy as many times I have sat, held hostage, to listen to a well meaning uncle start his comments by saying “before I figure out what I will say, let me read three emails I got from our friends who couldn’t be here.”

    1. @Ed Nash:
      Good point. It’s similar to the annulment process: the church has come up with a complicated system of rules, so complicated that we need to hire canon lawyers to figure out whether your case has merit, so we need you to pay for those lawyers to figure out the rules that we created. First the church provides the problem, then offers to sell you a solution. It’s not a bad business model, but it’s bad ministry.

      1. @Scott Pluff:
        I think it’s totally unfair to blame the church for the excesses of the funeral industry. Unlike the annulment procedures, which the church invented, the predatory practices of the funeral industry were operating long before the church said anything about cremated remains. To accuse the church of trying to make poor people spend their money out of some sort of clandestine conspiracy with the undertakers is far fetched and offensive. The church isn’t “selling” a solution here. In fact, I do not know of a church that would not waive the fee for a funeral if a family was too poor to pay or collect money to bury the dead if a family truly needed it.

      2. @Rita Ferrone:
        Agreed. It’s a very cheap shot that is not nearly as applicable in reality as it would seem. It’s not like the Church requires burial/reposition in Church-owned/affiliated locations – even in culturally Catholic Boston, while church bulletins have information for such locations, they are not hard-sold at all.

        Also, in the USA at least, since the advent of disclosure regulations, most funeral homes have moved their profit out of their line of caskets (at least the baseline ones) and into a “service fee”.

        And I think it’s quite realistic to underscore how cremated remains by their nature can be more vulnerable to being treated casually than an intact corpse, and anecdotal evidence would tend to confirm that. I take the instruction in that light.

      3. @Rita Ferrone:
        Perhaps I should add some qualifiers. Many people will feel that… One might get the impression that… But the larger point stands. We are requiring people to be buried in a cemetery, mausoleum, or columbarium, and we just happen to be in the cemetery, mausoleum, and columbarium business. While we do sometimes waive the fees for hardship cases, these are the exception and not the rule.

        Perhaps the new instruction could have outlined more economical ways that families can make final arrangements for their loved ones in accord with our belief in the resurrection of the body. This might include simple pine boxes instead of hermetically sealed caskets, explaining that embalming and extended wakes are not required, giving less costly options for burial, etc. But it didn’t cover any of those points, it just laid out the rules of what is forbidden.

      4. @Scott Pluff:
        Simple pine boxes are often more expensive than cheap steal caskets when associated costs are factored in. (“Simple” is often more costly these days. The joys of capitalism.)

        Also, the Vatican wasn’t going to write an instruction to address the anomalies of specific markets – the issues you raise are not universal.

        The US Catholic church might get behind reform of burial regulations in US states and municipalities to permit shroud-only burials, for example (that would, however, run far afield of the topic of a CDF-issued document). Would take a monumental (pun intended) effort.

      5. @Abe Rosenzweig:
        Well, when we were making our decisions, the cost for my mother would have been more than the cheapest steel casket, when factoring in ancillary charges.

      6. @Scott Pluff:
        Hi Scott,
        I usually support your points, but here you said ” First the church provides the problem, then offers to sell you a solution.” and that is just not true. It’s not a question of nuance. It’s just not true.

        The “problem” of death, and what to do with human remains, cremated or otherwise, has been around a lot longer than the church itself, and the church at present does not corner the market on burial places — not by a long shot.

        So the point that you think still stands here, I just don’t see it. The “selling” of solutions to a fabricated problem is something despicable, and that is not what is going on.

      7. @James Anderson Murphy:
        In 2007, Cardinal Roger Mahoney transferred $115 million out of the archdiocessan cemetery perpetual care fund to pay sex abuse settlements. This nearly wiped out the fund, creating pressure to increase sales of funeral and burial services to fund ongoing maintenance of the cemeteries. Then came along a video titled, “A Personal and Confidential Message for all Catholic Families from Cardinal Roger Mahony” in which he spoke of Catholic cemeteries as “the only places in the archdiocese where the complete ritual of Catholic burial is approved as suitable.” In these and similar cases, lines have been blurred between ministry to the deceased and a profit motive. While there may not be a worldwide conspiracy to profit from funerals and burials, the church is no stranger to corruption.

      8. @Scott Pluff:
        Another legacy of many bishop appointments, especially toward the end of the period 1978-2013: too many company men, and not enough Vatican II shepherds. How Cardinal Mahony ever got a rep for being a progressive is lost on me.

      9. @Scott Pluff:
        Thank you for shedding even more light on the Church’s funeral business. I’ll retract “seems” and “some” from my comment.

    2. @Ed Nash:
      Ed, where does it say you have to be buried in a Catholic cemetery or colombarium and are forbidden to rest in a Methodist one? Maybe I missed that. Or are you saying that folks will imagine the requirements are stricter than they actually are?

  7. Rita: I’m not blaming the Church for the funeral practices of our age. I do know that the “Catholic Funeral Homes” in our area upsell on services and top notch caskets rather than the pauper models. Parishioners have come away from the experience frustrated and I usually call the funeral home to ask how it went sideways. If a family can afford the limo, first class hearse rather than the panel van, four color printing of programs etc, then it is their choice. When a funeral director asks if a family really wants to honor their father with a pressboard casket…game on. Three years ago we had an article in our diocesan paper strongly suggesting families use the Catholic Cemeteries as the “proper and right place” for the faithful to be buried. Let’s be honest, burials have dropped off, anecdotally 20 years ago almost 100 % caskets, last year 80% cremains (including 2 rent a casket before cremation).

    The huge growth of cremation services is a result of the expense of burial. Not a disrespect for life. By holding up burial as the best way to respect the Resurrection of the Body (“burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body”) begins to place a fiduciary element on the survivors. The members of my family who have spread ashes do not disrespect the Resurrection of the Body, if they did, they wouldn’t be anywhere near a Catholic Church or a Catholic Cemetery.

    I love walking around my small parish cemetery and the huge Archdiocesan hillside plots. I experience the value of visiting friends and family for a while. But I know, as well as bishops around the world, how much money is held in those cemetery coffers.

    Thank you Rita for addressing whether it is a conspiracy. I don’t see a conspiracy here but it would be interesting to see if there is indeed an uptick in Catholic Cemetery use with this ruling.

  8. On eulogies: In my experience (which is partly in the Province of Boston but not in the Archdiocese proper) the rule against eulogies is often flouted for ordinary people as well as famous ones. I know that a less laudatory “remembrance” is allowed, but for both the celebrated and the common the line is often blurred.

  9. Some might remember that twenty-two years ago the U.S. bishops
    issued norms confirmed by the Vatican that said it was inappropriate to scatter cremated remains, and that they should be buried in cemeteries or at sea.

  10. I think another factor leading to the practice of sprinkling ashes at a favorite place is the mobility of American families. Many of us do not live near where parents and grandparents are buried, and do not live where we expect our children to remain settled or even friends to stay permanently. What is the meaning of burial or interment in a specific place when places are temporary? I’m not being critical, I find myself in precisely that situation and really have no idea where it makes sense for me and my husband to be buried.

  11. Surely, the family of the deceased are the legal owners of the remains/cremains and they can make any decisions regarding the disposal be it burial, retention, scattering or sharing of the remains/cremains.
    Why should the hierarchy interfere or how can they penalize without appearing ridiculous?

  12. The practice of preserving slivers of bodies of saints for devotional purposes in contrast to the ban on dividing up the cremanes of loved ones is worthy of mention, but would we ever even consider dividing up whole bodies so that one member can hold on to a leg or arm? The bottom line here in my opinion is that this raises the larger question of the practice by which church authorities seek to regulate matters that are so personal. Here’s what I believe would have been a better, more credible document:
    “Catholic officials encouraged faithful members of the church to treat the bodies of deceased loved ones with the same dignity that was accorded the body of Jesus. They also called for a thorough review of policies in dioceses and parishes that operate cemeteries to ensure that the costs associated with burying the dead are affordable for all Catholics.”

  13. Is it true that cremation was originally permitted for Cathoiics who live in countries where cremation is overwhelmingly the norm, i.e. India and Japan among others?

    Personally, I will plan to rent a casket for the funeral Mass and then be cremated. The presence of the deceased person’s body at the funeral Mass is a testament to the bodily resurrection. Yes, certainly ashes will be re-formed at the end of time. Yet, for the living today the belief in the bodily resurrection should be emphasized through concrete symbolism.

    I know there is a rubrical variation of the funeral Mass which permits the sprinkling of ashes at the dismissal from the funeral liturgy. Yet, at least for me, the sprinkling of ashes does not carry the same semiotic impact as the sprinkling of a deceased person in a coffin.

  14. Why did they just not say “Please treat the ashes of your loved ones according to the best traditions of your culture?”

    1. @Alan Johnson:
      That would necessitate good leadership and guidance from bishops and the local pastor. I appreciate KLS’s comment about some cultures. Clearly, the CDF doesn’t think some (or many) pastors have the theological acumen to assist in leading on this.

  15. From the CDF’s instruction:
    “The Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased.”
    Fine. But in praxis, shouldn’t this read, “The Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the embalmed bodies of the deceased…”
    For many people, the choice of cremation has gained preference as information on the surgical and cosmetic aspects of embalming have become so commonplace. (The eyes are closed, using skin glue and/or plastic flesh-colored oval-shaped “eye caps” that sit on the eye, securing the eyelid in place. The mouth is closed and the jaw is secured, either by sewing or wires. Suture string is threaded through the lower jaw below the gums, up and through the gums of the top front teeth, into the right or left nostril, through the septum, into the other nostril, and back down into the mouth. Then the two ends of suture string are tied together). Is this a natural and more “reverent” treatment of the body?
    Also, I agree with Rita’s comment questioning the “age-old practice of keeping and venerating relics of the saints (often a body part).” Google “RoadsideAmerica.com” and you’ll get tips on “offbeat tourist attractions” such as: Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Pickled Heart of the Miracle Man… “Brother Andre Bessette died in 1937 after years of unscientifically healing people. Known as the “Miracle Man of Montreal,” his heart was cut from his body and put on display in a jar, where it remains today.”
    Finally, it’s my experience that by the time the funeral home calls the parish, they have already outlined the basic plan with the family as to what will take place. It’s much harder to then explain to a grieving family why the church prefers they have an embalmed body in a pricey coffin, the rental of a hearse, etc., than what they may have decided, having the body cremated. The funeral directors may need to be given clear direction from the CDF as to why the Church encourages “fullness” of a Christian funeral .

    1. @Gregory Corrigan:

      Gregory, I don’t at all doubt that expensive aesthetic treatments for the dead exist. Your statements actually reinforce the primacy of the funeral Mass in the process of mourning the dead.

      I do not want a wake, and I will make this as clear as possible before I die. If you wish to pray the rosary for me, do so before or after the funeral liturgy. No aesthetic enhancements will be necessary as a casket is always closed for requiem. I do not see the need for expensive preparation for the wake, which is a quasi-liturgy which is not sacramental at all. If the Mass is source and summit, have all the mourners gather first at the church as a liturgical assembly.

      Karl Liam Saur, in #31, remarks that “Because some cultures don’t have something that could yet be called a deeply rooted cultural tradition concerning ashes of human remains.” Arguably, an aesthetic fetish first developed in the vacuum of our lookist culture of the living, This lookism and vulgar aestheticism at least initially did not preoccupy itself with the repose of ashes. A cultured society would focus on the most important ritual of death and mourning, having been freed from the bonds of a false aestheticism. The application of pancake makeup to a corpse or the quest for a suitably bespoke urn only reflect the anxieties of the living.

  16. My dad is old enough to remember waking the deceased in the parlor of the family home, with various family members sitting vigil overnight. Bunches of flowers helped to mask the smell of the decaying body, and from death to wake to funeral to burial may have all transpired within 24 hours. How expectations have changed in a relatively short time.

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