THE Vatican has reminded the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics not to keep urns containing the cremated remains of their loved ones at home, or even scatter the ashes, while reiterating that the Church allows cremation.
“Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places,” said Cardinal Gerhard Müller, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the instruction titled “Ad resurgendum cum Christo (Rise with Christ).”
But “for legitimate motives, cremation of the body has been chosen, 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,” the German prelate said in the instruction dated August 15 and approved by Pope Francis last March 18, but announced by the Vatican only on Wednesday.
Müller criticized the growing practice of scattering ashes in the air, on land or at sea, or dividing the cremated remains among relatives and placing them inside jewelry or other objects as mementos, saying these smacked of “pantheism, naturalism or nihilism.”
“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,” he added.
The Vatican first gave permission for cremation in 1963 with a caveat that those who resort to the practice should not reject Church belief in the resurrection of the dead.
The guidelines come just in time for “All Souls’ Day” on November 2 when the faithful typically pray for their dear departed.
In Rome, the cardinal told reporters: “The body is not the private property of the family. A dead person is a son of God. It is part of the body of Christ, it is part of God’s people. It’s for this reason that there is not only private rites for the deceased but it’s a public ceremony.”
Christian funeral may be withheld
Fr. Jerome Secillano, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippine (CBCP) Committee on Public Affairs, explained on Wednesday that the Vatican instruction was only a reiteration of earlier guidelines on cremation.
Secillano noted that cremation has no Biblical basis, but is widely practiced now because of economic reasons.
But official sanction of cremation is “not absolute, there are limitations,” Secillano told The Manila Times.
In case of non-compliance, the Church may take certain actions, like refusing a funeral Mass for the deceased, he said.
“The Church may refuse to hold a Mass. For example there is a death wish, the remains will be cremated and the ashes would be scattered somewhere else or kept in an urn at home, the Church can refuse to hold Mass. The Church has an option to refuse,” Secillano added.
Müller’s instruction tells priests 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.”
Secillano said storing urns in a privately owned columbarium is allowed because it is considered a cemetery.
But the guidelines will not be applied retrospectively to the relics of saints whose remains have been preserved over the centuries “to avoid provoking a war between believers,” according to one of Mueller’s aides.
In principle, keeping urns at home is prohibited. But a bishop, with the agreement of the bishops’ conference, may allow it “in grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature.”