The appropriate way to handle cremated remains

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The practice of cremation is on the increase for faithful Catholics. This practice was approved by the Church in 1963. While it is an approved method, the Church still prefers a full body burial to cremation. Canon law (1176 #3) states: “[The Church] does not however forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.”

There are specific ways in which we are called to care for the cremated remains of our deceased loved ones. In contrast to how a funeral home handles a traditional burial – where they accompany the body from the time they pick it up to the lid being placed on the vault in the ground or the door being closed on a crypt – the urn or similar container containing the cremated remains can simply be handed to the family, and it leaves their care.

Since at this point the people who control the cremains are the family, guidance from the Church is important.

We are called to reverence our bodies in life and in death, as they are temples of the Holy Spirit. In reverencing them in life and death, we are also confirming our faith in the resurrection of the body on the last day no matter the state of the body.

We see in the cremated remains of the deceased that the appearance has significantly changed. We need to remember the substance of the cremains does not change; it is still the body of the deceased, and it is to be treated with reverence.

The Church teaches that cremated remains should be buried in a sacred place, such as a cemetery — preferably a Catholic cemetery. Inurnment in a columbarium on a cemetery or Church property is also an option.

Knowing that the substance of the remains has not changed should allow us to understand that we should not separate ashes any more than we would separate off parts of the body. Similarly, in scattering the ashes, we are scattering the body of the deceased.

When the Church teaches that we are not to comingle the cremains of two of our loved ones, it is reminding us that we would never place two bodies in the same casket.

Knowing that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, we know that doing any of the aforementioned actions with the cremains would be desecrating the body of our deceased loved one.

Our reverence for the body also helps us realize why keeping cremains at home, even in a specially prepared location, does not show that reverence. While it may seem harmless to keep the urn at home, it is actually the opposite. We would never consider keeping a full body in our home, so why would we consider keeping the cremains there?

Coming to terms with the grief of losing a loved one can be difficult. An integral part of the process for expressing that grief is being able to say goodbye to the body — no matter its form. Keeping the cremains in the home prolongs this process for many people, as they cannot come to believe that the person is gone.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is clear in its instruction: We should always treat the cremains of our loved ones with the same love and respect we would if the person had not been cremated.

The Diocese of Richmond’s Office of Cemetery and Funeral Services manages a program at cemeteries to accommodate cremains from those who are unable to afford a proper disposition of the cremains. For more information on this option, contact the office at 757-229- 0851 or at ehandel@richmonddiocese.org.

Deacon Ed Handel is director of the Diocese of Richmond’s Office of Cemetery and Funeral Services

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