The Catholic Church has always held a high regard for the human body. Jesus, the Word of God, took on human flesh to dwell among us and, in doing so, He elevated the dignity of all our bodies. Our bodies are so valuable to our very being that, at the end of time, our bodies will be resurrected to be reunited with our souls for eternity. Angels, who are higher beings than humans in the created order, were not given bodies and will only ever be pure spirit. In her diary, St. Faustina said, “If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering.” In other words, because they lack bodies, they are unable to participate in the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which is a unique gift reserved just for us humans. For this reason, I would like to examine the Church’s teaching on a practice very common in our world today – the scattering or keeping of the cremated remains of loved ones.
When people scatter the ashes of their loved ones, it is typically being done, not out of some disrespect for the body, but for some sentimental value. A person may have been fond of a particular place, so loved ones wish for them to symbolically rest in that place. Similarly, someone may not be quite ready to say goodbye to someone they love, so they keep the container of remains with them in their home until they are ready to let them go, if at all. While these deep emotional attachments are understandable, especially after a loss, these practices are not in accordance with Church teaching. To be clear, while stating that the preferred means of Christian burial is in a casket with the body left intact, cremation is not “opposed per se to the Christian religion” and therefore, acceptable for appropriate reasons such as space or finances (Piam et Constantem, 1963). However, while it is permissible for a body to be cremated, the Church teaches that the remains still be interred in a Catholic cemetery. Due to the widespread and ever-growing practice of cremation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith thought it necessary to provide clarification on the appropriate care of bodily remains and released a document called, Ad resurgendum cum Christo, in 2016. Here, I will summarize why, that although people are generally well-meaning, anything other than proper internment is not permissible according to the Church.
We profess in the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus “…was crucified, died and was buried…On the third day he rose again.” In all things, we are called to imitate Jesus, so this includes what we ought to do after death. By burying, or interring our loved ones, we are imitating the care given to Jesus’ own body after He died. Similarly, we know, and profess, that His body was resurrected, and we believe that our own bodies will be resurrected at the end of time. For this reason, the Church says, “burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body” (Ad resurgendum cum Christo #3). You might hear it argued that the almighty God will certainly be able to resurrect our bodies, regardless of where they are or their state, because nothing is impossible for God. Of course, that is certainly true! Even the bodies of those whose ashes have been scattered will certainly be resurrected, but the point the Church is making here is that this is about us and how we express our faith in divine truths rather than about God and His power.
The document goes on to say that burial reflects “the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity,” (Ibid #3). In other words, while a person is not merely a physical body, his or her physical body is necessarily part of who that person is and to care for that body properly is to care for the entire human person. Similarly, through the Sacrament of Baptism, a person becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit and proceeds to carry out good works throughout his or her lifetime by virtue of being that temple (Ibid #3). Therefore, proper burial or interment “in a cemetery or another sacred place adequately corresponds to the piety and respect owed” to the temple of the Holy Spirit (Ibid #3).
The deceased person is not the only person affected by what is done with his or her body. Those loved ones who are handling these end-of-life matters are also affected. The Church instructs us to take care of one another by carrying out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, one of which is burying the dead in accordance with Jesus’ teaching that, whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we do for Him (CCC #2447, Mt. 25:31-46). It is further substantiated in Scripture that we are to bury our dead when “Tobias the just was praised for the merits he acquired in the sight of God for having buried the dead” (Ad resurgendum cum Christo #3, Tobit 12:12). So, by appropriately caring for our loved ones’ bodies, rather than just tossing them around or keeping them for ourselves, we are doing what Jesus has asked us to do for them and it is therefore, in turn, good for our own, individual spiritual lives.
Among the spiritual works of mercy is the command to pray for the living and the dead – we pray for the dead in order for God’s mercy to spare someone from hell, as our prayers are outside of time, or for a soul to finish the purification process in purgatory so that it might finally reach heaven. Cemeteries are, therefore, primarily places for prayer. When people visit their loved ones in a cemetery, they pray for those loved ones, but even more than that, a person can walk through a cemetery and pray for individual souls that are buried there, whether they are personally known to them or not (Ibid #3). It is also an ancient Christian tradition (going back to the catacombs) to pray at tombs for the souls belonging to the bodies inside, (Ibid #5). When you bury or inter your loved ones in a cemetery, you are providing an opportunity for many other members of the Body of Christ to pray for their souls, not only in the here and now, but also for all future generations. Always remember, that whether living or dead, the members of the Body of Christ are always united.
Finally, the Church states that burial protects against the appearance of pantheism (the belief of “I am one with the universe”), naturalism (nothing exists beyond the natural world), and nihilism (life is meaningless), which are possible interpretations that can be perceived from the scattering or keeping of ashes (Ibid #7). In other words, we believe in heaven and the resurrection of the body, so we don’t want to promote any symbolism of uniting their bodies with the earth in some beloved or sentimental location, which we know is temporary anyway. Cemeteries serve as outward, visible signs to the whole world that we believe that heaven is our home.
This week, meditate on the dignity of the human body and the ways in which God intends for us to care for it. If you have not already done so, consider writing down and informing your loved ones of what you want to be done with your own body after the good and gracious God has called you back to Him. If the scattering or keeping of cremated human remains has been a practice in your own family, do not despair. Know that nothing is impossible for God, but do pray that He helps you to deepen your understanding of His will in all things.
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