What to do with Cremated Remains

by | Jul 14, 2023

For the last 50 years, cremation has been allowed by the Catholic Church as long it was not done as a sign of denial of the resurrection of the dead. This permission was incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law. What was not addressed well was the question of “What should be done with the “cremated remains”? Can they be scattered? Do they have to be buried? Can we keep them at home?  

On October 25, 2016, the instruction entitled, “Ad resurgendum cum Christo” (To Rise with Christ) was issued regarding the burial of the deceased. The document was approved by Pope Francis after consultation with bishops’ conferences as well as the Eastern churches synods of bishops. This instruction reiterates the Church’s preference for the interment of the body in some way in a cemetery. It did not say that cremation is wrong. Its main purpose is to help foster respect for the human body, even after death.   

Our culture today promotes individualization that doesn’t always value the body. I have seen articles that talk about using cremated remains in artwork, jewelry, mixed into tattoo ink, made into bullets and fireworks, and sent into space. While these are indeed creative ways of “memorialization,” it does not help us remember that we revere God, our creator, by how we treat the body of the deceased, and none of it supports our belief in the resurrection on the last day. 

If we really understood that cremated remains were still the body of the deceased, would we even consider scattering them or using them in another way? Would you want to save a finger from a dead body in order to keep that person close to you?  Would you want a whole human body sitting in your living room as a reminder that s/he is with you? I know it’s gross, but then why do we think cremated remains are any different? 

I know a family that scattered the mother’s cremated remains at their lake cabin. Ten years later, having financial difficulty, they had to sell the property. Today, they are not allowed on the site where “mom” was placed. Is that a good memorialization? I see the same thing happening with cremated remains in teddy bears or art or jewelry. Just because it seems like a good idea at the time, doesn’t mean that the cremated remains that have meant so much to you will mean anything to whomever receives them when you die.  

I understand that some people aren’t prepared to let go. It doesn’t take a set amount of time to grieve loss. Everyone is different. However, at some point cremated remains should be placed in a cemetery where they will be permanently taken care of, memorialized, and offer a place for visitation and prayer. 

The earliest Christians buried the bodies of their dead, and this set them apart from many of their contemporaries. Let’s think twice about how we value our loved ones in death as we await the resurrection.