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Preserving the ashes of the deceased following cremation

 Preserving the ashes of the deceased following cremation  ING-050
15 December 2023

In response to questions proposed by Archbishop Matteo Zuppi, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith affirms it is possible to arrange a sacred place “for the commingled accumulation and preservation of the ashes of the baptized,” that is, a communal cinerary where the individual ashes are poured out. The Archbishop of Bologna submitted two questions to the Dicastery concerning the disposition of the remains of believers who have been cremated. The response to the second question says ecclesiastical authorities may also consider and evaluate the request of family members to keep a portion of a deceased person’s ashes in a place significant to the history of the person who died.

Cardinal Zuppi presented the questions in light of the increasing number of people who choose cremation for their deceased loved ones and then choose to disperse the ashes in nature. The questions were also motivated by the desire that “economic reasons” suggested by the lower cost associated with scattering ashes “not prevail”; and by the desire to provide indications “regarding what to do with the ashes once the term for their preservation has expired”, with the intention not only of corresponding with the requests of family members, but “more importantly, with the Christian proclamation of the resurrection of the body and the respect due to it.”

The first question, then, was: “Taking into account the canonical prohibition against scattering the ashes of the deceased, is it possible to prepare a defined and permanent sacred place for the commingled accumulation and preservation of the ashes of the baptized, indicating the basic details of each person so as not to lose the memory of their names, similar to what occurs in ossuaries, where the mineralized remains of the deceased are cumulatively deposited and preserved?” The second question was, “Can a family be allowed to keep a portion of their family member’s ashes in a place that is significant for the history of the deceased?”

In a text signed by Prefect, Cardinal Victor Fernandez, and approved by Pope Francis on 9 December, the Dicastery responds in the affirmative to both questions.

First of all, it recalls that according to the 2016 Instruction  Ad resurgendum cum Christo (no. 5), “ashes must be kept in a sacred place, such as a cemetery, or in an area dedicated to this purpose, provided that it has been so designated by the ecclesiastical authority.” The reasons for this choice are cited, namely the need to ensure “that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community,” and to prevent “the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect,” as well as preventing “any unfitting or superstitious practices.”

The document goes on to recall that “faith tells us that we will be raised with the same bodily identity, which is material […] even though that matter will be transfigured, freed from the limitations of this world.” In this sense, “the resurrection will be ‘in this flesh in which we now live’.” But this transformation “does not imply the recuperation of the identical particles of matter that once formed the human being’s body.” Therefore, “the body of the resurrected person will not necessarily consist of the same elements that it had before it died. Since it is not a simple revivification of the corpse, the resurrection can occur even if the body has been totally destroyed or dispersed. This helps us understand why, in many cinerary urns, the ashes of the deceased are conserved together and are not stored separately.”

The Dicastery goes on to emphasize that the “ashes of the deceased person, moreover, come from the material remains that were part of the person’s historical journey — so much so that the Church shows particular care and devotion concerning the relics of the saints. This attention and remembrance also leads us to have an attitude of sacred respect toward the ashes of the deceased, which we conserve in a sacred place suitable for prayer…”

In response to Cardinal Zuppi’s question, then, the Dicastery replies that “a defined and permanent sacred place can be set aside for the commingled accumulation and preservation of the ashes of deceased baptized persons, indicating the identity of each person so as not to lose the memory of their names.” The Church, therefore, admits the possibility of putting the ashes into one common place, as happens with ossuaries, while preserving the memory of each deceased individual.

In response to the second question, the Dicastery states: “The ecclesiastical authority, in compliance with current civil norms, may consider and evaluate a request by a family to preserve in an appropriate way a minimal part of the ashes of their relative in a place of significance for the history of the deceased person, provided that every type of pantheistic, naturalistic, or nihilistic misunderstanding is ruled out and also provided that the ashes of the deceased are kept in a sacred place.”

In response to a question from Vatican Media, the Dicastery explained that the intervention and assessment of the ecclesiastical authority is not only canonical but also pastoral in nature, to help the family discern what choices to make, while taking all considerations into account.

As some civil legislation forbids the division of the ashes of the deceased, the Dicastery explained that the second question emerged from a dialogue between bishops from several different countries to which Cardinal Zuppi gave voice. The Dicastery’s response considered the possibility from a theological rather than a civil point of view, as was later clarified in the reply.