This post is by Patricia Hartley at Connecting Directors
Recently the Vatican announced important changes to its instructions regarding the handling of human cremains. The update allows “a minimal part of the ashes” to be retained by family members and loved ones rather than requiring the entirety of a person’s cremains to be buried or entombed in a sacred place. It also approves the commingling of cremains of two or more individuals. With about 21% of the North American population identifying as Catholics, these allowances could have a huge impact on the families you serve.
The history of Catholic cremation
The Catechism of the Catholic Church dictates that the human body is sacred and that “the bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection.” Cremation was believed to violate this doctrine until 1963, when the Church established that the practice was not “opposed per se to the Christian religion” if the decision to cremate was made in good faith. However, burial or entombment remained the preferred methods of disposition.
In 2016, recognizing that the “practice of cremation has notably increased,” the Church issued its Instruction Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Conservation of the Ashes in the Case of Cremation proclamation. This document clarified post-cremation options for Catholics, dictating that “the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area.” They were not to be kept in a domestic home, divided among loved ones, scattered, or incorporated into keepsakes or jewelry.
Here’s what’s changed
The December 12 proclamation, which was issued by the Vatican’s revered Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith department, contained its responses to two questions asked by an Italian archbishop. Specifically, Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, Archbishop of Bologna wanted to know if 1) “ashes” could be commingled, and 2) “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.”
Both questions were answered in the affirmative — but with conditions. First, cremains can be commingled as long as a “sacred place can be set aside” for permanent preservation and each person is properly identified “so as not to lose the memory of their names.”
As for keeping a portion of cremains, some of the old rules still apply. For example, families must seek permission from an “ecclesiastical authority” like a bishop (priests and deacons are considered his “assistants” or “helpers”). Also, the “minimal part of the ashes” should be preserved “in an appropriate way” in a “place of significance,” with no “pantheistic, naturalistic, or nihilistic” misunderstandings. Lastly, the remainder of the cremains must be permanently memorialized in a sacred place.
Opportunities for deathcare
Although this proclamation may at first seem to be a simple addendum to the Vatican’s groundbreaking 1963 approval of cremation, it’s a pretty big deal for Catholic cremation families — and for the deathcare professionals who serve them.
Permanent memorialization of cremains remains a priority, so opportunities will always exist for niche and plot sales as well as urns and urn vaults. Now that Catholics may reserve a portion of cremains to keep in a place of significance to the deceased, though, additional urns or traditional containers for cremains are definitely an option that should be presented.
The 2016 announcement clearly states that under no circumstances may cremains be preserved in “mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects,” However, the revised advice does not specify what sort of containers the minimal cremains may be placed in. Cremation jewelry and decorative containers might be an acceptable option for some families, while others may seek the advice of their bishop on particular pieces.
It’s also important to note that not all Catholic families will be familiar with this new provision. Having easy access to the official Vatican document (bookmark it online here; the final decisions are in bold type at the bottom of the page) could be helpful. And of course, knowing that they can trust you as a knowledgeable expert on ALL things deathcare, including their faith’s latest allowances and beliefs — is always a bonus.