Religions have unique perspectives on cremation, and whether or not their belief systems can accommodate cremation as the preferred option worldwide. Many religions have re-examined their positions to make room for those who need to choose cremation. Although there are instances when tradition meets the modern world and finds no room at all.
With recent policy guidance from the Vatican, millions of members of the Roman Catholic Church may discover that they cannot meet the Church’s demands for a proper burial, no matter what they do. Worse, the Church’s criticism of those who fail to follow Church standards seem to ignore cemetery accessibility issues that faithful families face all over the world.
Vatican: Proper Disposition = Cemetery
In 2016, the Vatican published a directive, reminding Catholics that while cremation is an acceptable choice, there are still some limitations. Family members are to bury the remains in a “cemetery or other sacred place.” The directive noted that placement in a cemetery is vital to ensure that the person is remembered and prayed for by the Christian community at-large. Specifically, the Vatican forbade scattering the ashes in any way, or having the ashes preserved in any kind of memorial piece. The directive based the premise for this guidance on an effort to avoid “every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism.”
The instruction was intended to serve as a clarification of the changing policies of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the disposition of human remains. The Vatican claims that remains must be kept sacred, and buried whole if at all possible. Although the church permits cremation for certain social, sanitary or economic reasons, it still leans heavily on the faithful to opt for a traditional church burial. The idea of scattering ashes at sea or keeping them in cremation jewelry falls far outside the original reasons that the Church allowed cremation in the first place. The Vatican continues to argue this so it should be obvious to Catholics that these kind of activities would not be allowed.
No Room at the Cemetery
The Vatican’s assertion is discomforting for all those who simply do not have access to a cemetery in which to place the ashes. The directive issued by the Vatican avoids this issue, despite recognizing that many people must choose cremation for economic reasons. Access to a cemetery’s burial plot, or a spot in a crypt or columbarium, may present certain economic or logistical problems for faithful Catholics.
Cremation is generally less expensive than a traditional burial, for several reasons. The cost of the burial plot is one of them. Cemeteries can build a columbarium, a structure that is designed to hold human ashes in separate niches, to occupy less space than burial plots. While many cemeteries are expanding to offer columbarium space in response to the increase in cremation worldwide, people in many regions are still finding access very difficult. Limited spaces available can increase the price of a spot, which might cost as much as $2,000 or more. In some areas, people simply cannot get access to cemetery space at all, especially on short notice.
Catholicism’s Conflicting Choices With Cremation
The awkwardness and inconsistency in the way that the Roman Catholic Church represents the act of cremation is not exactly new. In the 19th Century, the Church banned cremation as a viable choice for the faithful departed. Explicitly denying Last Rites to anyone who said they intended to be cremated. This policy changed in 1963, when the Church acknowledged that there were certain circumstances in which cremation might be acceptable. People who could not afford a traditional burial could be permitted to choose cremation, as long as they recognized that the body would rise during the Resurrection.
For over 30 years, families who wished to have a Catholic burial for their loved ones were required to have funeral rites performed prior to cremation. In 1997, this policy was revised to permit certain funeral rites with cremated remains. The Church retains a strong preference for traditional burial ceremonies, but no longer denied a Catholic burial to those who had already been cremated. As long as the family could assure that their loved one only chose cremation for reasons compatible with Catholic dogma, they could have funeral and burial rites according to Church traditions.
An Impossible Situation for Families
This arms-length tolerance of cremation has the great potential to put families in a situation that is difficult or even impossible. Virtually anyone given the task of handling the final rest of a relative has an invested interest in ensuring that this person receives their proper due. The vast majority of the time, families want to honor a loved one’s wishes, and guarantee a good afterlife in accordance with their religious affiliation. Sometimes, the next of kin are unsure of those wishes. In other cases, they may know that the person who passed chose cremation and a disposition of the ashes that go against Catholic doctrine. As a result, they may end up taking a path that is not entirely honest, in order to carry out the Catholic burial a loved one wanted.
While having to choose between honoring a person’s wishes and following Church teachings is difficult, some people do not even have that option. Failing to place a faithful Catholic person’s remains in a cemetery may put the deceased person’s everlasting soul at risk, but some families have no choice. These policies can also have multiple long-term effects for regions, as well as the people living in them.
When Canon Becomes a Crisis
In heavily-populated regions where Catholic tradition is strong, the pressure to avoid cremation and opt for burial in a cemetery is creating crises for government officials. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mexico City. Nearly 9 in 10 Mexican residents claim Catholicism as their religion. With a population of about 9 million and a metropolitan area of 21 million, Mexico City is packed tighter than any other metropolitan area in the Western hemisphere. Mexico City officials and religious authorities are trying to encourage cremation to limit families’ expenses of handling a loved one’s remains, and to take the pressure off already overcrowded cemeteries and crypts.
The Roman Catholic Church’s assertion that cremated remains must be placed in a cemetery is creating a difficult situation for any faithful Catholic person who simply cannot get access to one. In some areas, Mexico City included, some people cannot find space in a cemetery, columbarium or crypt. No matter how much they are willing to pay. In turn, they end up keeping a loved one’s ashes at home, because a Church-sanctioned burial or placement of the ashes is literally not an option.
Salt in the Wound
As a result, the recent Vatican instruction may come as salt in the wound for faithful Catholics in many areas worldwide. Especially where cemetery space is more hard to secure. By claiming that people are keeping or scattering ashes simply for lifestyle or aesthetic reasons, the Church is at best, overlooking, and at worst, outright ignoring the accessibility issues many Catholics face today. It places the blame on believers, implying that they simply do not understand how the afterlife works, or are simply too lazy to arrange for a proper disposition of their loved ones’ ashes. They may draw the Church’s anger and go against its policies through no fault of their own.
The final disposition of a person’s earthly remains is an intensely personal and highly contentious subject, particularly within Catholicism. Many families decide to place a loved one’s ashes in an urn to keep at home, when the purchase of space in a cemetery is too expensive or merely unavailable. By blaming faulty beliefs for people’s decision not to place ashes in a cemetery, the Vatican may make choices even more difficult for families struggling to follow their religious teachings in a world that increasingly cannot accommodate them.