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Buried or burned, respect for the dead is what matters



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.

UrnThe 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 dead person can be consistent with an informed Christian sensibility. It need not be pantheistic."


In Christian practice, however, the disposal of the body could also be a symbol of exclusion. Suicides and unbaptised babies were buried in unconsecrated ground. Criminals, too, were often buried in unmarked graves near cross roads, and in some cases the bodies of heretics were burned. This suggests that respect for the dead was at least partially dependent on a shared faith and not simply on a shared humanity.

In western societies cremation became a legal option only in the 1870s. It was sometimes brought into the debate between atheists and Christians, and these conflicts are reflected in the Instruction. Currently about two thirds of Australians are cremated. The choice of cremation may reflect urbanisation and the consequent loss of small communities associated with churches and their cemeteries, the cost of burial and the preference for informal but reflective funerals.

The deeper question for both church and society is why and how respect for the dead is to be preserved in this new context. And particularly, given the growing preference for cremation, how the values that the Instruction associates with burial can be embodied when disposing of the bodily remains.

Certainly, cremation is open to possibilities that the Instruction does not envisage. Sprinkling the ashes over the sea or a place significant to the dead person, for example, can be consistent with an informed Christian sensibility. It need not be pantheistic. In the lives of many Catholics, Paradise places are deeply significant. These are places where they have experienced a deep sense of God's presence or calling and which, when remembered, lead them easily into prayer. In wishing to have their ashes sprinkled there they may express thanksgiving for the gift of God's creation and also their hope for the transformation, not only of their own bodily existence, but also that of the natural world in the final resurrection.

While loaded with personal significance, this gesture need not simply express an individual whim, still less withdraw the dead person from their community and its memory. The significance of the person and of the place where the ashes are scattered will be held in the stories and memories of those present at their funerals. And the place associated with them may trigger memory in the same way as would a graveyard.

The challenge for Christians is to structure ritual for such actions that invest them with their deeper significance while honouring the intuitions that underlie them. This will go beyond regarding cremation and its attendant rituals as a lesser form of burial. And it may help our wider society find good ways of respecting the dead.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, cremation



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Existing comments

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing canon 1176, makes the simple statement, "The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body" (n. 2301). Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead is in no way affected by the state of the corporeal remains. This has been the clearly articulated teaching of the Catholic Church throughout the history of the cremation controversy in the 19th century. Whatever their form, the mortal remains of the dead—whether lost at sea, destroyed by fire, naturally decomposed, or cremated—function in faith and liturgy in relation to the person whose living flesh and blood they once were".[New Catholic Encyclopaedia]

Father John George | 02 November 2016  

12 RITE FOR THE BURIAL OF ASHES 324 This rite may be used when the family and friends of the deceased ask for the ashes to be buried shortly after the funeral. Invitation 325 The minister begins: My friends, we have come together to bury/entomb the ashes of our brother/sister N. In doing this we recall that our bodies bear the imprint of the first creation when they were fashioned from dust; but in faith we remember, too, that by the new creation we also bear the image of Jesus who was raised to glory. In confi dent hope that one day God will raise us and transform our mortal bodies: Prayer of Committal 327 The minister then says the following prayer, during or after which the ashes are buried or entombed. Let us pray. Faithful God, Lord of all creation, you desire that nothing redeemed by your Son will ever be lost, and that the just will be raised up on the last day. Comfort us today with the word of your promise as we return the ashes of our brother/sister to the earth. Grant N. a place of rest and peace where the world of dust and ashes has no dominion. Confi rm us in our hope that he/she will be created anew on the day when you will raise him/her up in glory to live with you and all the saints for ever and ever. R. Amen. A brief period of silent prayer or informal intercessions may follow. [http://www.liturgyoffice.org.uk/Resources/OCF/12-Ashes.pdf]

Father John George | 02 November 2016  

Burial made sense in the past, particularly in European Communities where graves were next to the Church and the faithful visited those graves after Sunday Mass, and these graves were kept in beautiful condition. Have those Roman lawmakers ever visited an Australian cemetery where most departed's graves are rarely visited. Respect for the dead is in the memory after burial and not in a physical resting place. Scripture does not give us any guidance in this regard. Faith in the ressurection can hardly be made an issue to a true believer!

Peter M | 03 November 2016  

My wife and I were going to be cremated and our remains interred at the columbarium at the Anglican Church we formally attended. The Rector put me off by interring the remains of his dogs there. Not being speciest, but I think the religious brotherhood he belonged to should have vetoed that. It was crass. Scattering one's ashes over the Bay, or somewhere significant, seems to me a laudable act. The Rajput princes used to be cremated and they were commemorated with a "Chhatri" (umbrella) - a dome shaped pavilion. Lovely practice. We need to respect the dead.

Edward Fido | 03 November 2016  

Even though both my Italian born parents chose to be embalmed to be placed in an above ground tomb, I have never understood why legally enforced embalming was permitted by Catholic Church as we catholics were told "Dust to Dust, Ashes to Ashes". Now the article states we expect to rise from the dead at the last day When did we think this as truth?

Maria Fatarella | 03 November 2016  

Thank you for an excellent article. I makes much more sense than the 'Instruction' that came from Rome.

Pauline Power | 03 November 2016  

Ridiculous. The body rots and is eaten under the ground. It is not preserved intact. This will either be ignored or ridiculed or more people will choose alternative funeral arrangements. Sad.

Pauline Small | 03 November 2016  

Thank you Andrew for your balanced commentary on the CDF Instruction on the use & abuse (?) of cremation. Already catholic & other Christian friends of mine have chided me with my accepting the leadership of a pope who should have more important things to do than giving instructions on how to dispose of a corpse. All I could say was that for me respect for what Francis of Assissi called Brother Ass was the important. And different cultures in different ways show this respect. What interests me more is the oxymoron of a ' spiritual body' - a concept which exceeds not only my imagination but also my intelligence. It is only after death that I will learn how indiviual souls will be differentiated from one another but somehow I feel it will not involve the atomic particles which supplied the prime matter for my earthly coil.

Uncle Pat | 03 November 2016  

I arranged for my brother's ashes to be placed in a columbarium in the local church grounds. I delivered my brother's ashes and when the attendant came with a container to place in the columbarium I was surprised at the small volume of the container which fitted the columbarium. Nothing was said to me about the ashes. After the short ceremony and the ashes set in the columbarium I asked about the volume of ashes and was only then told that the rest of the ashes - 90% of the remains were to be 'sprinkled around the statue of Our Lady in the front of the church (on the ground)'!!! Obviously, relatives were not informed of the practice. Surely there should firm, compulsory regulations ensuring that receptacles for remains placed in columbariums - particularly in a Catholic church - should have sufficient volume to place all of the ashes. Appalling. Aussiedad

Terry Fitzgerald | 03 November 2016  

This contribution is not meant to sound frivolous. Burial sequestrates carbon dioxide very effectively in the ground. Burning on the other releases much of our bodily carbon into the air as gases. One advantage of having so many people in the world, and a great number of obese ones is that we do a lot of sequestering by just existing, and it is pity not to put the carbon back into the earth when we are finished with it. Burial is Green.

Eugene | 03 November 2016  

Thank you Father Andrew for once again - the voice of reason - and faith. The Curia really does not have al the answers.

John Nicholson | 03 November 2016  

It does seem just a little inconsistent to be so concerned to keep the remains of the average garden variety Catholic intact while simultaneously encouraging the veneration of various remaining body parts of the saints scattered across the globe. My brother's bodily remains are safely interred in a cemetery garden I will never visit. He is not there. Faith assures me that in Christ he is as close to me as my own heart. That's some kind of bodily resurrection, I'm sure.

Lisa | 03 November 2016  

‘Respect for the dead is what matters’. Respect for the Person who earlier inhabited the body is what matters most. If the person involved had, earlier in life, lost a leg or an arm, even that person would not normally want it shown undue respect, even if both legs and both arms were lost. In the case of an intact body, because of its association with the person, we feel closer ties and greater respect, but rather than worry unduly about how the body is disposed of, to honour the person, it is better to try to preserve their good qualities as in the saying, , ‘to live on in the hearts and minds of those who love you is not to die’. Organ donations, and even leaving one’s body to science, if that is what the person wanted, can show greater respect for the person than allowing the body to rot in the ground or be burnt to ashes.

Robert Liddy | 03 November 2016  

Thankyou once again Andrew for bringing some informed sense to the context of Vatican 'speak'. Sadly though this subject directive displays just how out of touch the Vatican staffers are with day to day Catholics. They seem hard pressed to regain a bit of credence and inject some positive directions for growing a spirituality that invites the companionship of present day Catholics.

paul goodland | 03 November 2016  

Currently the Pope is one of the most courageous and credible world leaders IMHO. Why he or his officials would bother with this matter is a mystery. The difficulty is that this kind of intervention lessens the credibility of the gravity of other pronouncements.

Michael D. Breen | 03 November 2016  

Bodily resurrection is a problem for me. The atoms in my body have already been recycled through an uncountable number of people and creatures and things ever since the Big Bang. Surely the afterlife will be lived in a spiritual universe.

Gavan | 03 November 2016  

It is only 3.30 pm on 3rd November 2016 & most of the 15 comments on Fr Hamilton's article express various degrees of disbelief & bewilderment at this Vatcan Instruction. You have written well Fr Hamilton. It would seem the clear thinking and clear expression you have exhibited as a Jesuit scholar are not shared by the authors of this Instruction. I agree with Mr Breen. Are there not other issues of greater moment for Curia officils to put before the Pontiff?

Joseph Quigley | 03 November 2016  

Not only does the instruction "not envisage" the scattering of human remains, it absolutely prohibits it. There is nothing new in the Instruction, contrary to the sensationalist headlines of the secular media. If there is one thing that Australia is in no danger of running out of, it's land. There is no excuse for an Australian Catholic to be cremated. If governments fail in their duty to provide enough land for public and church cemeteries where people can be buried cheaply or at no cost, then the answer is to pressure the government to do so, not to merely shrug and give in to the "New Age" (but in fact old) pagan zeitgeist of supposed "Paradise places" on earth.

Peter Kennedy | 04 November 2016  

A ‘Paradise place’ is where a person feels deeply that he has encountered God. Has he, or has he merely encountered his own ego? A Paradise moment is, after all, only a private revelation which, usually, the Church has no reliable way of testing for truth, in obedience to the scripture that even what an angel wants you to believe must be discerned. And if the person, after the Paradise moment, goes on to continue believing, say, that women should be ordained or homosexuals should be ‘married’ in church or contraception is licit or disagrees in other significant ways with Church teaching, how could the moment have been anything other than ambiguous? However, if there is such a thing as a Paradise place or moment, then, by definition, for those who believe in the Real Presence, it must be at church for, in theological logic, what could be greater than physically encountering God in his own flesh and blood (and soul and divinity)? As we don’t scatter ashes in church, why should we scatter them anywhere else under ‘Paradise place’ reasoning? Surely, there can be no greater Paradise place than where the Blessed Sacrament is received.

Roy Chen Yee | 06 November 2016  

God created Man from dust;He can resurrect man from ashes

Father John George | 07 November 2016  

Andrew : ) blessings for the wisdom & common sense you constantly bring to conversations around the tradition. Theology is always informed by context - grazie!

Gina Bernasconi | 07 November 2016  

The Vatican's announcement is immature.

Gerard Guiton | 09 November 2016  

Thanks Andrew for another thoughtful piece. Indeed the Instruction does not envisage all possible settings of ashes' disposal. In Germany last month I found a most moving forest cemetery where all the interred had been cremated; no headstones, only trees and boulders with small inscriptions, and with 3-12 people's ashes beneath each. A wonderfully respectful way for locals to be honoured by their local community. In spite of Eugene's dubious environmental claims, cremation is actually far more considerate than burial (especially in our choked cities) of God's creation - something which Pope Francis has rightly drawn attention in Laudato Si'.

Chris Ryan | 13 November 2016  

Another jewel of a piece from Andrew, placing good theology before ritual, so as to ensure that such priority, as always, takes precedence over liturgical practice. I wish we had respected this when it came to parish amalgamation and the tendency to locate columbariums in one of several constituent deanery churches. Recently, the family of a dear friend, who had died unexpectedly, fell foul of a parish priest who insisted that his ashes be interred in a columbarium of a neighbouring parish within the same deanery, and which had no significance for the deceased in the many years that he lived and worked on this earth. As passionate advocates of native horticulture, and noting the deceased's embeddedness in creation theology, his family members had unsuccessfully requested that his ashes be scattered within one of many gardens of his design, to be resurrected alongside and from within the many native species that he spent almost all of his adult life cultivating.

MLF | 14 November 2016  

Frankly, I uphold Vatican Instruction rather than Napoleonic eschatology "when he died, he would wish that his body might be burned. ‘It is the best mode,’ said he, ‘as then the corpse does not occasion any inconvenience; and as to the resurrection, that must be accomplished by a miracle, and it is easy for the Being who has it in His power to perform such a miracle as bringing the remains of the bodies together, also to shape again the ashes of the dead.’ O'Meara, Barry. Napoleon at St. Helena Volume 1 of 2 (Kindle Locations 1652-1655). Paphos Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Father John George | 15 November 2016  

Interestingly despite Napoleon's wish for cremation: On 8 October 1840, La Belle-Poule arrived at St. Helena and one week later, on 15 October, the commission dug up the emperor's coffin. The prince opens it and discovers that the body has been perfectly preserved. Napoleon is wearing the uniform of the Chasseurs de la Garde. [No grounds for canonisation!]

Father John George | 15 November 2016  

"We are made of stardust..." No, really, it's true. I'll be cremated because it's cheaper. My ashes won't be placed in a columbarium because I don't have access to one. They won't be placed in a jar and placed at the back of a cupboard because that's incredibly disrespectful. They will be scattered under a tree, because that's symbolic of the recycling of this mortal body into the resurrected Body of the final unity in the One. I believe in the resurrection of the Body, but certainly not in the resuscitation of my corpse. As for the Instruction - well done, chaps, I've read it and it's quite good. Now I'll do it my way.

Joan Seymour | 25 November 2016  

This is a critical issue that needs to be clarified and educate the Christian Catholic how to take care of their deceased family. We just celebrated my husband's 1st death anniversary almost two months ago. He asked me to have him be cremated for the following reason, to join his grandfather who went fishing and never returned. We had a long discussion because i do not believe in cremation and scattering in the ocean. In the end he convinced me which i painfully agreed. While preparing for his funeral mass and cremation i came across a catholic sea burial prayer and with God's plan my sons got a biodegradable urn for sea burial. When i found the prayer for sea burial it had empowered me to not give up and have him be buried at sea. It happened after a lot of research and help from canon law priest friends. Communication, education and clarification is critical for all to understand the do's and dont's of cremation and burial , kept or scattered of ashes at sea. Catholic practices must be consistant and be informed.

Malua Peter | 05 December 2016  

Catholic Church allows sea burial for cremated remains. We can drop the urn into the ocean. But, we don't scatter the ashes.

Rendy | 11 July 2017  

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