Fr. Kenneth Doyle
Fr. Kenneth Doyle
When a loved one dies, Catholic families find themselves wondering what the rules are for the cremated remains, commonly known as ashes

In the 2000 comedy “Meet the Parents,” Ben Stiller opens a bottle of champagne and the popping cork knocks an urn off his prospective in-laws’ mantlepiece. As they gasp in horror, the family cat races to investigate a pile of cremated remains and the shattered urn.

Catholics, of course, know that cremated remains aren’t to be kept in an urn in the home — or scattered to the wind, as they were in “The Big Lebowski.”

Or do we know that?

The director of the office of cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Baltimore decided to offer a teach-ing moment this All Souls’ Day; he invited all Catholics who have urns with cremated remains in their homes to bring the urns to a rite of committal and burial.

Catholics, in fact, have a lot of questions about cremation and cremated remains.

Father Kenneth Doyle, who answers questions for readers through Catholic News Service, frequently addresses the subject — reflecting, he writes, “a continuing fascination with the disposition of bodily remains.”

Here, heavily edited, are some of those questions and his answers.

Q — Can we scatter cremated remains as fertilizer on plants or trees?

A — No. In 2016 the Vatican issued an instruction on burial practices specifying that the body should be buried in sacred ground, never scattered on land or sea, nor “preserved in mementoes, pieces of jewelry or other objects.”

Q — Can my ashes be mingled with my husband’s at Willamette National Military Cemetery near Portland?

A — No. But ashes can be in a companion urn with two chambers. And it strikes me that … over time, the ashes would be mixed.

Q — How does cremation fit with what is in the Apostles’ Creed: “the resurrection of the body”?

A — It was only in 1963 that the church began to allow cremation. Catholic teaching continues to prefer burial of the body, which more clearly expresses the Christian belief in an eventual resurrection, when a person’s body and soul will be reunited.

Q — Can my ashes be placed in an urn and then buried at sea?

A — The Vatican’s 2016 guidelines allow for burial at sea as long as the ashes are not scattered. Perhaps a chaplain could read a prayer to give the burial at sea a religious context. The church’s Order of Christian Funerals has a beautifully written prayer for such occasions (No. 406).

Q — Do you have to prove to a pastor that you have a burial plot for ashes before you can have a funeral Mass?

A — The appendix to the Order of Christian Funerals states, “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 cremated remains in the home … are not the reverent disposition that the church requires” (No. 417). Even so, I am not aware of a mandate for proof of a burial place prior to scheduling a Mass.

Q — My non-Catholic father loved his cats and wants his ashes scattered in his backyard where his cats are buried, so he could be with them. Would it be a sin for me to honor his request?

A — The Vatican in 2016 clarified that the remains of the deceased should be treated with respect and buried in a consecrated place. Your father was not bound by the church’s guidelines so you would be free to honor his wishes. I know you will remember to pray for his eternal happiness in the company of the Lord when you visit his backyard.

Q — What about people who die in explosions and have their bodies completely incinerated? How can they be reunited with Christ?

A — The church’s reason for not scattering ashes results from the belief that the body is an essential part of a person’s identity, and so cremated remains should be treated with the same respect given a human corpse. Additionally, the church prefers cremated remains to be accessible to the public so that the Christian community can come and remember the dead in prayer.

Even so, (see Catechism of the Catholic church, No. 1017) our bodies will be reunited with our souls in heaven — even those whose bodies were “completely incinerated” in an explosion.

Q — At their request, I have my non-Catholic parents’ cremated remains in my home. Am I doing wrong? And might keeping their cremated remains in the home possibly trap a person here on earth, keeping them from moving on to heaven?

A — Not knowing your parents’ religion, I’ll guess they might have been Protestant. Cremation is widely accepted in Protestant churches with generally no strictures on what the final disposition of the ashes should be. I think you can feel comfortable keeping their remains in your home, where I am sure they are being treated with honor and respect.

I have never heard the theory that keeping cremated remains at home precludes the deceased from moving on to heaven. To be honest, that doesn’t make much sense to me: How would people be any more trapped in an urn on your mantlepiece than in an urn in the cemetery?

Q — My husband wants to donate his body to the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta. After the research is finished, his body will be cremated and buried at the Decatur Cemetery here. Does this satisfy the consecrated grounds requirement?

A — Your husband’s cremated remains may certainly be interred in the Decatur Cemetery. The church’s Code of Canon Law does say that if someone is buried in a secular cemetery, his or her gravesite should be “properly blessed” (Canon 1240).

Q — How can we have holy relics of saints when the church precludes the separation of cremated remains?

A — Relics of the saints have been venerated for nearly 2,000 years. Bones of a saint were divided up with a noble purpose, so that more people could be reminded of the heroic virtue that saint had displayed.

The fragmentation of a saint’s remains that marked the church’s earlier history would normally not be allowed today. In 2017, the Vatican released a new instruction for relics that noted that “dismemberment of the body is not permitted” without special permission.

Q — My sister’s last wish was to be cremated and have a Mass. The priest would not allow her remains to be in the church, so we had a service for her at the funeral home. But I have been to funerals where the cremated remains were present. Is this an individual priest’s decision?

A — In 1963, when the Vatican lifted its long-held ban on cremation, it still did not allow the cremated remains to be present at a funeral Mass. In 1997, the bishops of the United States applied for and received permission to have funeral Masses celebrated in the presence of the cremated remains.

It is now the prerogative of the bishop of each U.S. diocese whether to permit this.