Understanding the sacraments: To rise with Christ

Vatican’s Congregation for the Faith issues instructions on burial and cremation practices

By Father Randy Stice

In October the Congregation for the Faith issued an instruction titled To Rise with Christ (Ad resurgendum cum Christo) that reiterates the Church’s “doctrinal and pastoral reasons for the preference of the burial of the remains of the faithful and to set out norms pertaining to the conservation of ashes in the case of cremation” (no. 1).

The instruction begins by summarizing the Church’s understanding of death in the light of Christ’s Paschal Mystery—his suffering, death and resurrection.

Our participation in Christ’s Paschal Mystery begins at baptism, in which “we are immersed in the death and resurrection of Christ and sacramentally assimilated to him” so that “we already truly participate in the life of the risen Christ” (no. 2). As a result for us “death has a positive meaning,” with the liturgy itself proclaiming: “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven” (no. 2, quoting Preface I for the Dead).

At death the body and soul are separated, “but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul” (no. 2). The Church continues to affirm her faith in the resurrection: “The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live” (no. 2.).

It has been “the most ancient Christian tradition” to bury the bodies of her deceased children “in cemeteries or other sacred places,” for this “the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body” (no. 3). In the tender language of the instruction, “The Church who, as Mother, has accompanied the Christian during his earthly pilgrimage, offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of her grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory” (no. 3).

The instruction explains why the Church prefers burial of the body. First, burial is a confirmation of the Church’s faith in the resurrection of the body and shows “the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity” (no. 3).

For this reason, the Church rejects “rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the “prison” of the body” (no. 3).

A second reason is that burial of the dead is “one of the corporal works of mercy” (no. 3). And third, it “encourages family members and the whole Christian community to pray for and remember the dead, while at the same time fostering the veneration of martyrs and saints” (no. 3). The ancient practice of burial “in cemeteries, in churches or their environs” expresses the relationship between the dead and the living and opposes “any tendency to minimize, or relegate to the purely private sphere, the event of death and the meaning it has for Christians” (no. 4).

While burial “shows a greater esteem towards the deceased,” the Church permits cremation as long as it is not “chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine” (no. 4), summarized above. Cremation of the body does not affect the deceased’s soul, “nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life” (no. 4).

When cremation is chosen, “the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority” (no. 5).

This “ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community. It prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect, which eventuality is possible, most especially once the immediately subsequent generation has too passed away. Also it prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices” (no. 5).

This means, explains the instruction, that it is not permitted to keep “ the ashes…in a domestic residence,” or “to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewellery or other objects” (no. 6).

In her funeral rites, the Church “commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sins” (Order of Christian Funerals, no. 6). In addition, through these rites the faithful “offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now been returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just” (Order of Christian Funerals, no. 5). In the eucharistic sacrifice, “the principal celebration of the Christian funeral…the Christian community affirms and expresses the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in the one great communion of saints” (Order of Christian Funerals, no. 5-6). To rise with Christ reaffirms and clarifies the Church’s consistent faith and practice with respect to Christian burial and addresses questions concerning cremation so that all may be done “for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all his holy Church” (Order of Mass, no. 29). ■

Father Stice is pastor of St. Mary Parish in Athens and directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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