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The Vatican Just Banned Scattering Ashes

A new doctrinal rule requires Roman Catholics to store cremains at cemeteries

A Pearl Harbor Survivor Liaison scatters the ashes of Ed Chappell, who requested that his remains be scattered where his fallen shipmates died in 1941. (Expert Infantry - Flickr/Creative Commons )
smithsonian.com

When people die, they often instruct their loved ones to scatter their ashes in some beloved place. And survivors sometimes opt to place dear old mom or dad’s remains on top of the family mantel or in some other display rather than bury them. But for Catholics, those practices could abruptly go out of style. As Harriet Sherwood reports for The Guardian, the Vatican has ruled that ashes can only be stored in sacred places such as cemeteries.

According to new instructions just announced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican body devoted to clarifying Catholic doctrine, Roman Catholics should bury ashes in “cemeteries or other sacred places.” The document states that “the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted” and can be permitted only in extraordinary circumstances. The ban includes the scattering of ashes and the division of ashes among family members and states that descendants who have requested that their ashes be cremated must be denied Christian funerals.

Sherwood reports that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who leads the Congregation, said that burial is preferable to cremation and that dispersing ashes in the air will not be allowed “in order to avoid any form of pantheistic or naturalistic or nihilistic misunderstanding.”

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, a group of funeral industry professionals, cremation rates have grown in recent years. In 2015, they projected it would surpass the rate of burial, reaching 48.5 percent compared with 45.4 percent of burials. The group projects that by 2030, 71.1 percent of people will be cremated instead of buried. Part of that increase is due to environmental concerns about burial, which not only takes up precious space, but spews embalming fluid into the ground and impacts the environment through everything from fertilizer to water usage at burial sites. Others simply prefer cremation to burial for reasons that range from its reduced cost to the power it gives to families to determine where an how to dispose of the deceased person’s remains.

As the Cremation Association of North America told TIME’s Bess Lovejoy in 2013, approximately a third of people who receive “cremains,” or cremated remains, keep the remains. Another third scatter them, and the remaining third buries them. Scattering ashes is subject to a number of laws depending on the method of scattering—for those who wish to have a burial at sea, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency requires a permit.

Church rules actually haven’t permitted Catholics to cremate their dead for that long—the regulation that allowed for cremation of human remains only became doctrine in 1963. In 2012, Jim Graves reported for Catholic World Report that more and more Catholic families are opting for cremation. Will that change with the new law? Will Catholics even follow the doctrine? That remains to be seen. But given the Church’s intention to deny a Christian funeral to families who wish to hold on to the remains of their loved ones, the doctrinal shift—which even appears to prohibit the time-honored tradition of burial at sea for members of the U.S. Navy—may prompt a sea change in how Roman Catholics commemorate the lives of their loved ones.

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