Does the Catholic Church allow cremation? Matters Arising from Desmond Tutu’s aquamation.
By: Omokugbo Ojeifo.
1. Yesterday I made a Facebook post with a photo showing how the cremated remains of the Late South African global spiritual icon and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu was interred at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. Tutu was cremated with a new technology called Aquamation. Instead of burning the dead body with fire, the remains were processed using a water based cremation system (check my previous Facebook post). This was in keeping with his explicit request and is said to be in sync with his stated “eco-friendly” advocacy for the protection of the environment.
2. However, some comments under the post generated the question about the propriety or otherwise of cremation as a Christian funerary rite. Should a Christian be cremated? Do our dead bodies belong to us to do as we wish? Should we not follow the example of Jesus whose dead body was buried? Does the Catholic Church support cremation? Although Tutu was not a Catholic but an Anglican, his aquamation generated the last question about whether such would be accepted in the Catholic Church.
3. So to the question: Does the Catholic Church “support” cremation? The answer would be yes and no. No because the Catholic Church does not go out of her way to actively “encourage” or “promote” cremation of the dead. But does the Catholic Church “allow” or “permit” cremation? Yes, provided certain conditions are met. (Note my use of the difference between “promote” and “permit” or “allow.”).
4. Let me explain. In 2016, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF), the Church’s highest doctrinal office, released a document on cremation titled “Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo” (“To Rise with Christ”) regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation. It’s a 3-page document. What does the document say?
5. It starts by making reference to a 1963 instruction from this same doctrinal office which had stated that “all necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed” and that cremation is “not opposed per se to the Christian religion.”
6. The 1963 instruction further stated that the sacraments and Christian funeral should no longer be denied to the faithful who have asked that their dead bodies be cremated, provided they do not make this choice under the following three conditions: (a) a denial of Christian teaching on the resurrection; (b) the animosity of a secret society; (c) hatred of the Catholic religion and the Church. This teaching was subsequently incorporated in the 1983 and 1990 Codes of Canon Law of the Church.
7. The 2016 Instruction was a response to the fact that “new ideas contrary to the Church’s faith” have become widespread. Such include “erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body.” The Church rejects these erroneous ideas about death.
8. The document restates clearly the Church’s belief and teaching in the resurrection of the body, based on Christ’s own bodily resurrection, which is “the culminating truth of the Christian faith” as the New Testament attests.
9. It also states that based on ancient tradition, the Church “insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places.” Why? Because “burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.” Burial also “shows the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity.”
10. The document cites the example of Tobias in the Bible (Tobit 2:9, 12:12) who was praised for the merits he acquired in the sight of God for having buried the dead. Moreover, the Church considers the burial of the dead one of the corporal works of mercy.
11. For all these reasons, the Church “continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased.”
12. However the document is clear that “cremation is not prohibited” unless when the motive for preferring cremation is contrary to Christian doctrine, as I have mentioned in no.6 above.
13. The document states that after the celebration of the funeral rite, the Church accompanies the choice of cremation, following the doctrinal and liturgical prescriptions in order to avoid any form of scandal or indifferentism.
14. After cremation has taken place, the ashes of the deceased “must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose.”
15. Read this carefully: “The reservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community. It prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect, which eventuality is possible, most especially once the immediately subsequent generation too has passed away. Also it prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices.”
16. The conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted.
17. To avoid “every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism,” 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.”
18. The Church has a right to deny cremation to a faithful if the deceased “notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith.”
19. There’s an important point made by the document about why people may prefer cremation. It could be for “sanitary, economic or social considerations.” Let me give 2 examples. Sanitary reason: in some African cultures, the dead are buried within the compound or even inside the home of the deceased. The decomposed bodies can affect clean drinking water in wells or other underground sources of water. This has sanitary and environmental impact. For economic reasons, let me cite a personal experience. While I was studying in the UK, I had the opportunity to officiate at some funeral Masses in the parish where I served, after which I proceeded to the cremation home for the final prayers for the deceased. Once I had to ask the pastor of the parish why cremation was the common practice. He said that it is quite expensive to get a small portion of land for burial at a cemetery. The cost of a burial space could be as high as £10,000 to £20,000 he told me. In Naira exchange rate, that is between 6-12 million for a 6ft burial space! Cremation. is far cheaper. This explains why people may prefer cremation.
20. In conclusion, cremation does not negate the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the body. It does not affect the soul of the deceased, neither does it prevent God in his omnipotence from raising the dead to new life. For these reasons, the Catholic Church has no doctrinal objection to cremation.
Essentially, the 2016 Instruction explains why the Church recommends, encourages, and prefers burial, and why she allows and permits cremation.
* The photo above is a demo of the aquamation technology.