Ad resurgendum cum Christo is nothing new. Today’s Instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presents no new teachings or policies regarding the burial of the dead. Rather, it aims to underline why the Church prefers burial over cremation in a time when cremation is on the rise. In short, burial confirms faith in the resurrection of the body, shows the dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person, and it corresponds to the respect owed to the body as an temple of the Holy Spirit. Also significant in this Holy Year of Mercy: burying the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy.
Has the Church been opposed to cremation, and does it continue to be, then? Not at all. Objectively, cremation does not “negate the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body” (n. 4). Like with burial, the Church asks that the ashes be placed in a sacred place, such as a cemetery or other area set aside by compentent Church authorities. Like the buried body, the ashes of the deceased should be similarly included in the prayers of the living and are deserving of continuous respect. Their location helps to assure that.
The most interesting part of the Instruction, in my opinion, is that these considerations and requirements aim to prevent any form of superstition (paragraph 7 mentions pantheism, naturalism and nihilism as reasons to not allow the scattering of ashes “in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way”).
We are created in the image of God, in body and spirit. Through Baptism our bodies have become home to the Holy Spirit. Human beings have an innate dignity which flows directly from our created nature. This dignity does not stop at death. Our bodies continue to be deserving of respect. In life we have shown our faith through our actions and words. In death we remain able to show our faith in the bodily ressurection in which Christ went before us. Physical life may end at death, but the two are not separate. In our modern western society we have grown used to keeping death out of sight (which probably accounts for how easily we allow such horrors like abortion and euthanasia), but life and death are integral to our existence and our faith, as Ad resurgendum cum Christo underlines in its second paragraph:
“Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning. The Christian vision of death receives privileged expression in the liturgy of the Church: “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” [Roman Missal, Preface I for the Dead]. By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. In our own day also, the Church is called to proclaim her faith in the resurrection: “The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live” [Tertullian, De Resurrectione carnis, 1,1].”
Photo credit: Inge Verdurmen