Q: Is it licit to mingle the ashes of several persons and to put them in one urn for one funeral? What are the Church’s rules in regard to this case? — W.G., Denver, Colorado
A: Until the publication of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, cremation was not generally an option for Catholics.
Cremation was common in ancient Rome, but Christians, as most Jews before them, believed in the resurrection of the dead and preferred burial. The Christian practice was also strengthened by belief in the sanctification of the body as God’s temple through the sacrament of baptism and nourishment by the Eucharist.
This concept of sanctification of and through the body is ultimately based on the mystery of the Incarnation insofar as the Divine Word sanctifies the human body by becoming man. This doctrine also underpins the practice of venerating the relics of the saints.
Thus, the Church not only practiced burial but also from the beginning designated specific areas for this purpose. These places were themselves considered as hallowed ground, and a rite was developed to consecrate them as cemeteries.
Although interment was universal Church practice for centuries, there was no general law banning cremation. This changed in 1886 when the Holy See banned cremation, which was being promoted by several Masonic groups as a means of rejecting Christian belief in the resurrection. This ban was incorporated into the 1917 Code of Canon Law.
In 1963, the Church began to relax its ban on cremation and permitted it in cases of national custom, lack of burial space, avoiding contagion in cases of epidemics, and similar considerations. In doing so the Church recognized that in the vast majority of cases those seeking cremation were no longer doing so as a means of denying the bodily resurrection but for mostly practical purposes.
This was the basis of the revised Code which says in Canon 1176:
“The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes this situation in No. 2301: “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”
At first, it was still not possible to have any funeral rites in the presence of cremated remains. Over time, however, this has changed, and many countries have developed specific rites and prayers for this purpose.
However, the ancient principle of the respect for Christian remains is still intact. For this reason some bishops’ conferences and many dioceses where cremation is common have developed basic rules for Catholics.
Among the most common general rules given by dioceses are the following:
— It is generally preferred that cremation take place after the funeral with the body present. In some countries the Holy See has granted an indult permitting a funeral Mass with the presence of cremated remains.
— Cremated remains should be preferably interred in a Catholic cemetery in an appropriate container. This may be in the ground or in a niche, vault or columbarium. The Church recommends that the place of burial be memorialized in a stable manner.
— The ashes should not be placed in unsuitable receptacles such as jewelry, dishes or space capsules. Nor should cremated remains be made into jewelry, artwork or other objects of display.
— Practices such as scattering the cremated remains over water or from the air or keeping the cremated remains at home are not considered reverent forms of disposition that the Church requires.
— Other practices such as commingling cremated remains or dividing up cremated remains among family members or friends are not acceptable for Catholics.
Therefore it is not acceptable for Catholics to mingle cremated remains for a funeral. It would be acceptable, however, to place remains side by side in receptacles that would eventually disintegrate and mix the ashes after burial.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.