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.

Send to Kindle