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Final resting spot: Cremation guidelines


The Catholic Week

Many Catholics understand the Church permits cremation, but many are also unaware there are rules regarding the choice.

Since 1963, the Catholic Church has accepted cremation as an option but insists the bodies be treated with respect, laid to rest in a consecrated place and that the ashes should not be scattered.

“Most people have gotten the message it’s OK to cremate, but they’ve not gotten the message that there are rules that govern what to do with those remains,” said St. Vincent de Paul Parish Pastor Fr. Stephen Vrazel, who led a three-night series last year on Catholic traditions surrounding death.

“I’ve encountered people who still have their family members’ ashes in the home, which is not permissible. … I gently explain why we wouldn’t do that. And a lot of times people aren’t in a place to hear that message, so it’s another reason why it’s important for me to explain very clearly what the Church expects of us.”

As cremation has become a more common practice of laying a loved one to rest, Catholic Cemeteries, Inc. of the Archdiocese of Mobile is providing an option to meet the needs of Catholics. Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi recently blessed a new columbarium at the Catholic Cemetery of Mobile.

There are 176 available niches. A 95-niche columbarium is also in the works at St. Margaret Cemetery in downtown Montgomery.

In 1963 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an instruction permitting cremation as long as it was not done as a sign of rejection of the belief in the Resurrection of the body. In 2016, the Congregation released “Ad resurgendum cum Christo” (“To Rise With Christ”), an instruction “regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation,” which reiterated the Church’s teaching.

According to Fr. Vrazel, cremation had been forbidden because in past centuries it was tied to pagan cultures that denied the resurrection of the body “which is an integral part of our belief and integral part of our funeral liturgy. If you ever go to a Catholic funeral, notice how often there is reference to the hope in the resurrection of the body.”

While cremation is accepted, with standards, burial of the body is still preferred.

“It’s because the Church has a great respect for and a great reverence for the human body, even after the person has died – mainly because God creates the human person’s soul and body. It’s still God’s creation and we treat it with great respect. It’s very good to have the body in the Church for the funeral rites for us to be able to sprinkle it with Holy water, incense it and do honor and reverence to God’s creation.”

But if cremation is chosen, “The Catholic practice is you would treat cremated remains the same way you would treat noncremated remains,” Fr. Vrazel said.

This means keeping one’s ashes in an urn on a mantle is forbidden. So is scattering of ashes at a random location like the ocean.

Along with respecting the body and God’s creation, Fr. Vrazel said it’s important to have a place to mourn the deceased.

“That visit to a cemetery is very important,” Fr. Vrazel said.

“If you scatter somebody’s ashes over the Atlantic Ocean, where do you go in remembrance of that person? Yes, you could say you go to the beach, but it’s not focused, it’s not a locality, it’s not a place you go to visit that person. Just as we revere the remains of the saints, and we build churches over tombs of those we consider holiest in the Church, even for someone who is not a saint, it’s important for us to go and remember that person.”

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