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Buried or burned, respect for the dead is what matters

  • 02 November 2016


The plot of Antigone, Sophocles' great play, turned on a burial. The ruler Creon had forbidden burial to Antigone's brother after a failed rebellion. Antigone then buried him out of obedience to the Gods and was condemned to death.

The overt argument in the play is about which authority had precedence. But its force lay in the unarticulated connections between how we treat the dead and the welfare of the city.

Last week the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an Instruction of understandably less literary merit on the conditions under which cremation is legitimate for Catholics.

Most comment focused on the authority of the statement. But as with Sophocles' play the more interesting questions lay in why the manner of the disposal of the body after death might matter, and how what does matter might be embodied in changing cultural contexts.

The starting point of the Instruction is the conviction that for Christians the best way of treating the body after death is through burial. It represents symbolically the Christian hope that the dead will be raised bodily. Burial, too, shows respect for the body as integral to the person, helps those grieving to recognise the reality of death, involves the community, and gives tangible remembrance to the dead person's life.

From this perspective cremation is permitted but on condition that it is assimilated as far as possible to burial. The ashes should be placed in a cemetery or designated place, and not sprinkled on land or at sea, shared among relatives or kept at home. These practices are seen as trivialising or privatising the disposal of the body, and so jarring with Christian faith in the bodily Resurrection.

When reflecting on the instruction it is helpful to take account of the broader historical and cultural contexts of Christian burial practice. Initially the Christian disposal of the dead followed the more common Roman custom of burial. But this was soon set within the distinctive Christian faith in the resurrection and its transformation of the body.

This dimension, together with the respect due to the body, the importance of the community in dealing with death and the holding in memory were strongly marked in village life where memory, memorialisation, the preaching of faith and the inclusion within the community were closely interwoven.


"Cremation is open to possibilities that the Instruction does not envisage. Sprinkling the ashes over the sea or a place significant to the