Q. I am a lifelong Catholic and served 28 years in the Navy. As a junior officer, I saw the ashes or bodies of deceased sailors buried at sea; I decided at the time that this is what I want done with my body after I die, and I have not changed my mind.
Recently, I shared that decision with some of my fellow parishioners, and one of them said that a new directive from the church provides that a Catholic can no longer be buried at sea. (In fact, he said that if someone were to be buried at sea, a priest is prohibited from celebrating any type of funeral service in a Catholic Church.)
If that is really the case, I don’t see what I am doing remaining in a Catholic parish; in fact, it might be time for me to change to a different Christian denomination that will be there for me at the end of my life. (Virginia Beach, Virginia)
Q. I am aware that the Catholic Church has traditionally discouraged cremation, but I am confused as to why. For centuries, cremation has been accepted by most cultures as a somewhat more humane way of dealing with the remains of a loved one.
With a standard burial, the person’s remains are left to “rot in the ground.” Does it have something to do with an eventual “resurrection”? And is the presence of a body required for that resurrection? If so, what would be left of Christians from, say, A.D. 200? Surely by now there is nothing left of them to raise. (Corydon, Indiana)
A. The two letters above are typical of many that I receive and reflect people’s continuing fascination with the disposition of bodily remains. That interest was heightened in October 2016 when the Vatican issued an instruction regarding burial practices for Catholics.
That document was issued at the request of bishops in several nations in response to the growing practice of cremation and the lack of specific church guidelines on the disposition of cremains. The instruction reiterates that the church, while not opposed to the practice of cremation, continues to recommend a traditional burial.
The document specifies that either the body or the ashes of the deceased should be buried in sacred ground and that cremains should not be kept in private homes or scattered on land or at sea, nor “preserved in mementoes, pieces of jewelry or other objects.”
Burial in sacred ground, said the Vatican, prevents the deceased from being forgotten and encourages family members and the wider Christian community to remember the deceased and to pray for them.
Historically, cremation was linked to the burial practices of pagans, whose religious beliefs did not include the expectation of eventual resurrection and viewed death as the definitive obliteration of the human person. The Catholic Church began to allow cremation only in 1963, as it became more commonplace for both economic and sanitary reasons.
But the church’s Code of Canon Law has continued to express the preference for burial over cremation because the burial of human remains, in the church’s mind, reflects a greater esteem for the deceased and more clearly expresses the Christian belief in an eventual resurrection, when the person’s body and soul will be reunited.
As the Vatican’s 2016 instruction says, “Burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body” and shows “the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person, whose body forms part of their identity.”
That same instruction does note, though, that “cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God in his omnipotence from raising up the deceased body to new life.”
In response to the Indiana letter writer’s concern about the decomposed remains of the Christian buried in A.D. 200, we don’t know mechanically how the eventual reunion of body and soul will occur and leave that — as the Vatican does — to the wisdom of the Lord.
And as for the Virginia writer’s preference for burial at sea, he can relax. The new Vatican guidelines do not prohibit that, so long as the body or cremated remains are buried in a dignified and well-protected container. (Catholics should consult with their diocese for further instructions, since standards can vary from diocese to diocese.)
The church’s Order of Christian Funerals has a specific prayer for such a burial, asking that the Lord who calmed the sea in Galilee may grant peace and tranquility to the person deceased (No. 406).
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr. Albany, New York 12203.