In an aside from today’s presentation of the Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled Ad resurgendum cum Christo, about the burial of the deceased and the conservation of ashes in case of cremation, the Cardinal Prefect Gerhard Müller answered questions posed by ZENIT and other colleagues of the press.
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Q: The most incontrovertible “no” in the document is for the dispersion of the ashes of the deceased or their transformation into “commemorative memories, jewelry pieces or other objects.”
Cardinal Müller: This is contrary to the Christian tradition. We do not want the faith to be privatized and have the memory become something individual; it is something that belongs to the Church and to the family of God. Therefore, it is confirmed that it is better to find a common place for our dead, so that not only one who possesses the ring, for example, has a memory of the deceased but also others who want to pray for him. A living person did not only have relations with the person whose ashes he is carrying. Ashes cannot even be divided in several pieces: one in a ring, another in a necklace or in something else. It seems to me to be something altogether ridiculous.
Q: A practice of this sort, therefore, is <considered>a sin by the Church?
Cardinal Müller: It’s not a mortal sin and it isn’t even prohibited, but it is a symbol that is not in accord with the sentiments and principles of Christianity, because the body of the deceased – as I said – is not the private property of his relatives. We are all children of God and of the Church. A reason given is that objects are preserved on the basis of a testament, but the identity of a person expressed in his body is something else; it is not the inheritance or the almost material property of the relatives or of a parent, a wife or anyone who had relations <with the deceased>. We must surmount this individualism and not only this …
Q: What else?
Cardinal Müller: We must avoid mixing elements of Christian thought with those of secularized, materialist and individualist thought. It is necessary to return to integral Christian thought, or the awareness that when one is baptized at birth, the beginning of one’s life is with Christ and also hone’s morality, one’s social relations are influenced by one’s communion with Christ, consequently, also our death. Saint Paul spoke of death, in fact, in a perspective of communion: all the dead of Heaven will come on the last day, they will be united to the living on earth. This communal dimension of our existence has been lost in the West. There is talk of the autonomy of the person in a “bourgeois” sense.
Q: In the document, the Church confirms <that she> does not prohibit cremation but prefers burial. Can you explain why?
Cardinal Müller: The model we follow is Jesus Christ, who was buried after His death and rose. In virtue of the Christian tradition, the Church has always suggested, therefore, the practice of burial with the veneration of the deceased and prayer in a cemetery or sacred place close to the Church. Cremation was in use among pagans of the Roman Empire and it came back in the 19th century with the materialist current as expression of denial of the faith and of the resurrection. These anti-clerical materialists advanced the proposal of cremation to show themselves superior to us Christians, too “late” in the development of thought. However, cremation is not always done to deny the faith. In such cases, the Church accepts and tolerates it, as long as some conditions are respected such as, in fact, not dispersing the ashes in a forest, in water, almost as though wishing to dissolve the identity of the dead. The Church in fact wants a place for a personal memory where the name of the deceased is inserted, because every one must be called by his name, every one must have his dignity.
Q: What happens now to one who already had a relative cremated?
Cardinal Müller: We are not speaking of a punishment for someone who has done this, nor do we want to convince people now, but confirm what is the right attitude, according to the Church, in face of death. It is difficult to die and also to lose a loved one, but everyone must accept this as a truth that God is our Savior and does not leave us outside the hope of resurrection. Therefore, the Church advises all the faithful against cremation and admonishes them to act according to the faith, so as not to be “partial” Christians but <Christians> at every moment.
Q: You spoke of the “challenge of the evangelization of death.” Do you see a trivialization today of the concepts of death, resurrection and the beyond?
Cardinal Müller: Yes, there is a trivialization, but it is part of the secularization of Christianity. Above all I see a lack of respect for life and human dignity. So many people have lost the Christian faith and continue to keep some uses, traditions, elements, without being aware of their dignity. I am thinking, for instance, of children when they receive their First Communion only to have a celebration … We are sad, because these people are entrusted to the Shepherd Jesus Christ who gave His life for us, has left us the Sacrament of the Eucharist and, of these gifts, we only consider the decorative aspect, we use them for secular feasts. Instead, we have dignity, let us not forget this!