Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 67(1) February 2017
Burials, Cremations and Respect for dead patients
In October the Vatican issued a new document  on Christian burial and cremation. The document helps us to affirm and understand better the dignity of the human body after death.
It is very refreshing to hear the hope that we have in death: “Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning. The Christian vision of death receives privileged expression in the liturgy of the Church: “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.”
The document emphasises how important Christian burial is. “Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places.”.... “ 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.”
Accepting cremation, the document states that “The Church raises no doctrinal objections to this practice, since cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life. Thus cremation, in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body.”
But goes on to say that “When, for legitimate motives, cremation of the body has been 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.” The new document expressly states that ashes should not be kept in private houses and that the scattering of ashes on land or at sea is not permitted. “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 jewellery or other objects.”
Denial of Christian funeral to dissenters
And finally to make it quite clear that the Church is serious about respect for the deceased body the document states “When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith, a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law.”
Signed Pope Francis 15 August 2016, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This document is helpful for doctors and nurses and all who support the dying and the bereaved. A deep respect for the deceased body means that we treat it properly, care for it, and bury the body or the ashes in an appropriate place. We too must share that respect for all those for whom we care.
- Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation. Vatican 25.10.16 https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2016/10/25/161025c.html