Final Resting Place: What to Do With the Body?

An explanation of restrictions on Catholic burial and cremation

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After you die, you'd like your body to be [choose one]:

  1. Cremated, then shot into space in a time capsule;
  2. Cremated, then embedded in your loved one's skin as a commemorative tattoo;
  3. Turned into human compost and grown into a tree;
  4. Stored in a decorative urn on the mantel;
  5. Cremated, sealed into pendants, then divided among family members;
  6. Cremated, then scattered over the water in Disney World's “It's a Small World” ride;
  7. Embalmed, then interred in a plot in a Catholic cemetery;
  8. Cremated, sealed in an urn, then buried in a cemetery.

 

Individualized Disposal of Remains Gains a Following

All of the above options have gained popularity in recent years, with many companies offering jewelry that encases cremated remains. The relatively new method of tattooing with cremated remains involves mixing a small portion (perhaps a tablespoon) of ashes with traditional tattoo ink, to create a custom tribute to a lost loved one.

The Neptune Society assists families with cremation planning, including interment in the Neptune Memorial Reef, an underwater memorial 3.25 miles off the coast of Key Biscayne, Florida, where families can have the cremated remains of their loved ones interred. Neptune's burial at sea involves mixing cremated remains into concrete for a sturdy and secure resting place. For other families who choose to scatter their loved ones' ashes at sea, the Federal Clean Water Act stipulates that ashes or other remains must be buried 3 miles or farther off the coast.

And in Washington state, a bill currently pending in the state legislature would permit alternate methods of disposal including “recomposition,” which involves placing bodies in a vessel and hastening their decomposition into a nutrient-dense soil which can then be returned to families. Once a body is reduced to compost, the enriched soil can be spread in a home garden or in a natural area, where the deceased can literally become a tree or a flower. (Washington's recomposition bill would also permit alkaline hydrolysis, the dissolving of bodies in a pressurized vessel with water and lye until just liquid and bone remains.) Democratic State Sen. Jamie Pederson, sponsor of the state bill, said, “People from all over the state who wrote to me are very excited about the prospect of becoming a tree or having a different alternative for themselves.”

 

Catholics Have Only Two Options

But if you're a Catholic, the only correct choices from the above list are Options #7 and #8. Other, more novel dispositions of bodily cremains are forbidden.

Throughout the centuries, the Catholic Church has expressed respect for the human body – and reinforced Church teaching regarding the resurrection of the body – by requiring that the deceased be buried. For most of its history, the Church has banned cremation, which it considered a sacrilegious act that implied disbelief in the resurrection of the body. In 1963, the Pope lifted the ban on cremation – as long as it is not done to express a refusal to believe in bodily resurrection. Canon law now approves cremation, while still expressing a preference for bodily burial:

The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (canon 1176, § 3).

 

Vatican Instruction Clarifies Church Teaching Regarding Burial and Cremation

In August 2016, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responding to emergent fads regarding disposition of ashes, issued an Instruction regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then prefect of the Congregation, told reporters,

“Caring for the bodies of the deceased, the Church confirms its faith in the resurrection and separates 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.”

The Instruction specifically addresses the disposal of ashes:

The reservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place ensures that they are not excluded from the 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 immediate subsequent generation has too passed away. Also it prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices.

For the reasons given above, the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted. Only in grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature, may the Ordinary, in agreement with the Episcopal Conference or the Synod of Bishops of the Oriental Churches, concede permission for the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence. Nonetheless, the ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained regarding the circumstances of such a conservation.

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.

—Ad resurgendum cum Christo (“To Rise With Christ”), Aug. 15, 2016