An urn containing cremated remains is seen in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery mausoleum in Coram, N.Y. (Gregory Shemitz/Catholic News Service)
An urn containing cremated remains is seen in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery mausoleum in Coram, N.Y. (Gregory Shemitz/Catholic News Service)
The Catholic Church is not opposed to the cremation of earthly remains in principle. But nor is it considered the ideal.

As cremation increases in popularity all over the world, the church has released guidelines to be followed regarding burial and conservation of ashes in the case of cremation.

The ashes that result from cremation must be treated with the appropriate dignity and respect that is accorded to the human body. The church teaches the resurrection of the dead, and recognizes that the body is an essential part of one’s identity; it is much more than a mere vessel, an earthly costume or conveyance for our souls. The human person consists of body and soul, and these are integrally linked.

In one sense, then, nothing that we can do can change that reality. But even if the reality can’t be changed by our actions, we still ought to show our respect for that truth.

Burying the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy, along with such acts as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless.

When we bury our dead, we express a hope and belief that God will ultimately reunite body and soul, so that the person is whole for eternity.

On July 5, 1963, what was then known as the Holy Office issued a document regarding the burying of the dead. This document, called “Piam et Constantem,” stated that cremation is not “opposed per se to the Christian religion,” and that Christian funeral rites should no longer be denied to those who have been cremated, as long as this decision was not the result of “a denial of Christian dogmas, the animosity of a secret society, or hatred of the Catholic religion and the Church.”

This is the crux of the matter, and the guiding principle for Christian burial. This principle was expanded upon in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s document “Ad resurgendum cum Christo,” regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation, which was released in October 2016.

The document says, in part: “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.”

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, said that the church means to separate itself “from attitudes and rites that see in death the definitive obliteration of the person, a stage in the process of reincarnation or the fusion of one’s soul with the universe.”

One reason the church discourages keeping the ashes in the home is that the burial in cemeteries “or other sacred places encourages family members and the whole Christian community to pray for and remember the dead, while at the same time fostering the veneration of martyrs and saints.”

As Catholics, our belief in the Communion of Saints guides us into a profound respect for our dead, and we venerate their example whenever possible.

Even in those exceptional cases when the conservation of ashes in a domestic residence is permitted, “the ashes may not be divided among various family members.”

Similarly, the scattering of ashes is not permitted, “nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects.” This is, according to Ad resurgendum, to avoid every appearance of pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism.