Just in time for All Souls Day on Nov. 2, the Catholic Church has published instructions for the cremation of the "faithfully departed."
The guidelines, released today (Oct. 25), state that a person's ashes must be kept in a sacred place, not in a home or other domestic residence, and should not be scattered or divvied up in any way.
The guidelines are not meant to suggest that the Catholic Church now prefers cremation over burial of the body, as that isn't the case. In fact, they stem from earlier burial instructions published in 1963, when the Holy Office established "Piam et Constantem," which established that Catholics should be buried with reverence and that cremation wasn't "opposed per se to the Christian religion." As such, those who were cremated could still receive the sacraments and funeral rites as long as their decision to be cremated was not an indication of their "denial of Christian dogmas, the animosity of a secret society, or hatred of the Catholic religion and the Church," the "Piam et Constantem" read, according to a statement by the Vatican.
Even so, according to the Vatican, cremation practices contrary to the Christian faith have popped up. As a result, the new guidelines are meant to emphasize that the Catholic Church's preference is for the remains of Christians to be buried and, to state instructions for conserving the ashes when cremation is chosen. [After Death: 8 Burial Alternatives That Are Going Mainstream]
According to Catholic teachings, to honor the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, burial in a cemetery or other sacred place is "above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body," the Vatican statement reads. Burial in a sacred place also allows family and other loved ones to pray for and remember the dead, according to the statement.
Catholics believe that the soul is immortal and does not depend on the physical body. Since cremation of the deceased's remains do not affect his or her soul, according to the Church, there are no doctrinal objections to the practice. (As a side note, even some distinguished scholars are pondering the existence of a soul, and what that soul might look like.)
As for why the ashes shouldn't be scattered, in the eyes of the Church, such an action could suggest the belief in another form of a god. "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," the statement reads.
If these guidelines aren't followed, the Church will deny funeral rites, according to the statement. "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," the statement reads.
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Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.