This article appears in the Witness section of the Winter 2016 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.
The Roman Catholic Church has banned the scattering of ashes of the dead. A strict new ruling from the Vatican also outlaws keeping cremated ashes at home, dividing them between family members or turning them into mementoes. The ruling suggests that in some circumstances those who request this for themselves should be denied a Christian funeral. “In order to avoid any form of pantheistic or naturalistic or nihilistic misunderstanding, the dispersion of ashes in the air, on the ground, on water or in some other way as well as the conversion of cremated ashes into commemorative objects is not allowed,” said the ruling.
For centuries, the Catholic Church forbade cremation altogether, primarily due to the religious belief that Christians will be raised from the grave before the Day of Judgement. In 1963, a landmark ruling lifted this ban and acknowledged often pressing social and sanitary needs for cremation. It urged Catholics to choose burial wherever possible.
At a press conference in Rome in October, a few days before All Souls’ Day on 2 November (when Catholics pray for the dead), Vatican officials noted that an increasing number of Catholics were opting for cremation over burial, warning against these “new ideas contrary to the church’s faith”. The new guidance accepts cremation in principle but clamps down on varied uses for ashes, saying that they should only be kept in a “sacred place” like a cemetery. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, reiterated that burial of the dead was preferable. “We come from the earth and we shall return to the earth,” he said. “The church continues to incessantly recommend that the bodies of the dead be buried either in cemeteries or in other sacred ground.”
Despite this emphasis on returning to the earth, the Vatican’s formal document expresses anxiety that modern cremation practices reflect non-Christian ideas about death as “a moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe”. Returning to the earth in a coffin is acceptable, clearly, but not as ashes.
Of course, it is unsurprising that the Catholic Church would take issue with informal rituals outside its control. But Catholics are not immune to wider trends, which, when it comes to burial, go far beyond cremation. The ruling makes no mention, for instance, of natural burials, where bodies are often buried without a coffin and priority is given to sustainable landscapes rather than consecrated grounds. This also constitutes a return to the earth; one suspects the Vatican would not approve.