Today’s “instruction” from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does not change the current practice in Ireland where the burial of the body of the deceased or its cremation are both the prevailing practice. Rather:
- it restates the Church’s preference for the burial of the body of the deceased;
- it underlines doctrinal and pastoral reasons for the preference of the burial of the body; but,
- it sets out new norms pertaining to the conservation of ashes in view of the notable increase in many countries of the practice of cremation in which new ideas contrary to the Church’s faith have become widespread.
The norms published today will also apply to the Catholic Church in Ireland. In this regard, this document is not a set of discretionary guidelines rather they are norms which are to be adopted by the universal Church.
Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning. From today’s document we see, in contrast, “ideas contrary to the Church’s faith” and these are set out in paragraph three:
- considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person;
- the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe;
- as a stage in the cycle of regeneration;
- as the definitive liberation from the “prison” of the body.
Furthermore, in paragraph seven the document states: “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.” In paragraph six, it prohibits the division of ashes amongst family members.
Overall, this instruction from the CDF is addressed to the universal Church, where in many places there are more established practices of constructing places for the entombment of ashes (e.g. a columbarium). Such columbaria are overseen and managed by a civil authority or by a Church authority.
Today’s instruction does not mean ashes will have to be stored in church buildings in Ireland, but it may mean over time the establishment of a columbarium in the grounds of cemeteries owned by Catholic parishes.
The Bishops’ Conference will consider this new instruction at its winter meeting in December and keep in view any new pastoral developments that may be required for the reverent laying to rest of ashes. In this regard, it will continue to uphold statutory requirements for the proper disposal of human remains. It will also include any changes that will have to be made in the next edition of the Order of Christian Funerals, the ritual book for funerals which is approved for use in the dioceses of Ireland.