The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a statement in late October about burial and cremation that reaffirms Catholic teaching on the subject. It was approved by Pope Francis. It does not change any official teaching for American Catholics, who have had similar guidelines on this subject since 1997. The CDF instruction contains some practical dos and don’ts. Cremation is permitted, but scattering of ashes is not; keeping ashes in private homes is generally prohibited; making jewelry and keepsakes out of cremated remains is totally forbidden. Nothing new here, but practices coming from the secular culture may have seemed attractive for some Catholics as well.
Let’s look at the theology that underlies the document. Catholic traditions about death and burial are shaped by what Catholics believe about Christ and what they believe about the human person. About Christ: his death has infused death itself with new meaning for those who believe; denial of death or avoidance of reminders of death is out of place. About human beings: the human body is part of the person and so is to be treated with reverence even after death. The body is not a “prison” of the soul, nor can it be reduced to a token or a memento of the deceased. We believe in the resurrection of the body, not in reincarnation or the dissolution of the person into the cosmos.
It is also about the Church. Prayer with and for the dead is part of the Church’s tradition. Having sacred spaces set aside for burial or entombment encourages and reminds us to pray for those who have gone before us. It is communal: the death of a Christian concerns not only the individual and any living relatives, but is linked with the Communion of Saints that reaches beyond this present generation. In addition, burying the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy.
The Funeral Liturgy, done well and according to the Church’s tradition, is meaningful and healing. It brings closure. No one does it better. And burying the dead in a cemetery provides a place where loved ones can go when they feel the need to visit and pray. Even if they never visit, there is the psychological benefit of knowing that there is a “place” where the person’s body lies. There is also the spiritual benefit of knowing that, as part of the Rite of committal, the priest or deacon blessed the ground in which the person is buried.
The instruction comes at a good time. In an age when “memorials” are conducted in place of funerals, and scattering of ashes has become commonplace, the emphases surrounding death have begun to change for Catholics. Nowadays sharing memories of the deceased is all important; praying for them is less so. Deciding where to scatter ashes seems like a chance to express the personality of the deceased; laying them in a grave marked with a name, less so.
It is, therefore, a service to the faithful that the CDF should remind us of the underlying principles of Catholic faith that can and should guide our practice. Fond memories and beautiful places that evoke those memories are fine, but they are not all that matters.