By Lara Pickford-Gordon
The ashes of a mother of three who died in April is contained in an urn on the living room table of a home. When she was alive, she had expressed the wish that her ashes be scattered at sea.
The keeping of ashes in the home and the scattering of remains at sea or in a park, are practices contrary to norms set out by the Catholic Church.
Four years ago, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo [To Rise with Christ] regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation.
The Instruction was intended to emphasise the Church’s doctrinal and pastoral reasons for the preference for burial of remains and set out the norms relating to the conservation of ashes in cases of cremation.
It states, “Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places.”
When cremation is chosen because of sanitary, economic, or social considerations “this choice must never violate the explicitly-stated or the reasonably inferable wishes of the deceased faithful”. The ashes must be laid in a sacred place—”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”.
The instruction stated the Church raised no doctrinal objections since the practice of cremation of a deceased’s body did not affect his or her soul or prevent God, in His omnipotence from raising up their body to new life. “Cremation, in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body.”
Placing the ashes in a sacred place, the instruction explains, ensures the deceased is not excluded from prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community. “It prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect, which eventuality is possible, most especially once the immediately subsequent generation has too passed away. Also, it prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices”.
Not kept in your home.
For these reasons, the faithful are advised: “the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted”. There is an exception for “grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localised nature”. However, the agreement of the “Ordinary” (diocesan bishop) must “concede permission for the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence”. It adds, “Nonetheless, the ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained regarding the circumstances of such a conservation”.
Not to be scattered
The faithful are informed as follows, “In order that every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism be avoided, 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. 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”.
The Cremation Act clause 34 (3) makes it an offence for “Any person who throws or authorises the throwing of any ashes of human remains into the sea or a river save as is provided by this regulation, or into any lagoon, pond, dam, reservoir, stream, ravine or watercourse or disposes of the same otherwise than in accordance with the provisions of subregulation (1).”
It states: “After the cremation of the remains of a deceased person the ashes shall be given into the charge of the person who applied for the said cremation if he so desires. Where the ashes are not so desired, they shall be retained by the Crematorium Authority, and, in the absence of any special arrangement, they shall be decently interred in a burial ground or in the land adjoining the crematorium or site reserved for the burial of such ashes”.
In breach of clause 29, someone can be liable on summary conviction to a fine of $1,000 and to imprisonment for six months.
Vicar General and Cathedral Administrator Fr Martin Sirju told the Catholic News he has noticed more Catholics were doing cremations. He said the Church prefers burials in cemeteries because this constitutes ‘sacred ground’ and is also a place where people can gather and reminisce or conduct devotional exercises e.g. pray the rosary or light candles for All Souls.
“It’s how we hand on faith. It’s hard to see how that can be done when ashes are disposed of to the wind or at sea”.
Relatives may try to respect the wishes of loved ones however, if it is not in sync with Church teaching Fr Sirju said, “We should generally do what the Church says”.
Responding to a question from the Catholic News on if any advice is given to persons on proper disposal of remains after cremation, “Coming to think about it, no. We generally leave them to follow their own wishes which is not a good policy. We must do better.” He added, “Many people keep it for a while to afford closure and then come and ask how to dispose of the ashes. Then we offer them advice. We often go with them to inter the ashes in the cemetery”.
Sometimes a Lay Minister does the interment.
The faithful can also enquire about storing of urns at a columbarium. This is not available at all parishes. Our Lady of Mt Carmel, Carapichaima, St Benedict’s La Romaine and St Finbar’s, Diego Martin have columbaria.