The Holy See released today the Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo "regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation." The instruction is issued "with the intention of underlining the doctrinal and pastoral reasons for the preference of the burial of the remains of the faithful and to set out norms pertaining to the conservation of ashes in the case of cremation" (1). Before we take a look at the provisions of the document, we should first consider what an instruction is.
The Code of Canon Law states that instructions "set out the provisions of a law and develop the manner in which it is to be put into effect" (canon 34 § 1). To put it perhaps more simply, an instruction tells us how to carry out a law already in force. Ad resurgendum cum Christo seek to clarify how Catholics are to honor the remains of the faithful departed.
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians have buried their dead. This is one of the things that set them apart from the pagans who normally cremated their dead. Ad resurgendum cum Christo explains why burial is preferable for Christians:
In memory of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, the mystery that illumines the Christian meaning of death, burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.The Church who, as Mother, has accompanied the Christian during his earthly pilgrimage, offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of her grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory.By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity. She 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.Furthermore, burial in a cemetery or another sacred place adequately corresponds to the piety and respect owed to the bodies of the faithful departed who through Baptism have become temples of the Holy Spirit and in which “as instruments and vessels the Spirit has carried out so many good works [St. Augustine, De cura pro mortuis gerenda, 3, 5: CSEL 41, 627]" (3).
Moreover, Christians bury their dead in cemeteries to encourage prayers for the dead, to foster devotion to the saints and martyrs, and because "Christian tradition has upheld the relationship between the living and the dead and has opposed any tendency to minimize, or relegate to the purely private sphere, the event of death and the meaning it has for Christians" (3).
While the Church prefers and encourages the burial of the body, she "raises no doctrinal objections" to the practice of cremation provided that it "is chosen because of sanitary, economic or social considerations" and if cremation does not "violate the explicitly-stated or the reasonably inferable wishes of the deceased faithful" (4).
It should be noted and remembered that while the Church allows cremation, she "continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased" (4).
When cremation is 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, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority" (5, emphasis mine). The Church insists on this because "it prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect" and because "it prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices" (5).
The instruction explicitly states that "the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted" and that "the ashes may not be divided among various family members" (6). Moreover, "it is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects" in order that "every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism be avoided" (7).
Lest there be any question as to the authority on this instruction, it is noted that "the Sovereign Pontiff Francis, in the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect on 18 March 2016, approved the present Instruction, adopted in the Ordinary Session of this Congregation on 2 March 2016, and ordered its publication." The instruction was published "from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 15 August 2016, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary." Why the text is only now being made available to us is not explained.
As we approach the month of November when we remember our beloved dead in a particular way, please be sure to read the full text of Ad resurgendum in Christo (it is not very long).
Though it may useful, precisely why this instruction is needed is unclear to me. The General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals says, "for the final disposition of the body, it is the ancient Christian custom to bury or entomb the bodies of the dead" (19). That seems clear enough. The same paragraph also says, "cremation is permitted, unless it is evident that cremation was chosen for anti-Christian motives."
Moreover, the Introduction to Appendix 2 of the Order of Christian Funerals for rites involving the ashes of the faithful departed is clear to say that "the cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come" (417). The Introduction goes even further:
The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping the cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition the Church requires (417).
Because Catholics routinely ignored and violation these directions, the Holy See felt the need to repeat more clearly and to explain why the Church requires what she does.
That said, might I suggest another instruction should be written, namely one on the use of eulogies at funeral Masses.
The Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals states quite clearly:
A brief homily based on the readings is always given after the gospel reading at the funeral liturgy and may also be given after the readings at the vigil service; but there is never to be a eulogy (27, emphasis mine).Regrettably, this is also routinely ignored and violated, which can deprive the departed of needed prayers. I hope such an instruction will be forthcoming.