Merely a preference.
The new CDF instruction on burial and cremation, which was released yesterday, is being hailed in the Catholic media as a reaffirmation of the Church's "strong preference" for burial. One finds headlines that speak of the document as putting "restrictions" on cremation, or as instituting "strict conditions" upon it. Unfortunately, after a careful reading of the document and considering the pervasive culture of permissions and exceptions in the Church, we are compelled to come to different conclusions.
To put the new instruction in context, we need to revisit the first document by which the Holy See relaxed the traditional ban on cremation on a global scale: the instruction Piam et constantem, issued by the Holy Office in 1963 and published in L' Osservatore Romano and Acta Apostolicae Sedis the following year. (An English translation of this document can be found here.) Written with the customary brevity and clarity of the old Holy Office, it speaks of the various temporal reasons that compelled the Holy Office to "relax somewhat the prescriptions of canon law touching on cremation". Henceforth, cremation was permitted, as long as it was not chosen due to "anti-Christian motives". However, it remained officially discouraged (even if no longer forbidden). This was made abundantly clear in the first and fourth articles of the instruction:
All necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed. Accordingly, through proper instruction and persuasion Ordinaries are to ensure that the faithful refrain from cremation and not discontinue the practice of burial except when forced to do so by necessity. For the Church has always maintained the practice of burial and consecrated it through liturgical rites.
The devout attitude of the faithful toward the ecclesiastical tradition must be kept from being harmed and the Church's adverse attitude toward cremation must be clearly evident. Therefore the rites of ecclesiastical burial and the ensuing suffrages may never be carried out at the place of cremation itself, not even simply to accompany the body as it is being brought there.
An article written by Fr. John Russell SJ and published in the American Ecclesiastical Review in 1965 (full text here) illuminates how this change in legislation was expounded to the faithful:
Is the Local Ordinary's permission a necessary condition for the lawful choice of cremation? The Instruction gives not the slightest basis for an affirmative answer. Bishops are urged to do all they can to preserve intact the Catholic tradition of inhumation—but by instruction and persuasion, not by the necessity of having to approach the episcopal curia for permission. The spirit of the Instruction seems to be that the Faithful are to be so convinced of the fittingness of interment that they choose it of their own accord. This is an example of the tendency today to show Catholics the positive value of following ecclesiastical precepts, and not to force them into line through fear of the consequences of disobedience. The laity are to be treated as responsible adults and considered capable of arriving at a prudent decision in the light of the preaching and instruction of their pastors. ...
It is astonishing to see the naiveté that led so many ecclesiastics of the time to think that Catholics had reached a level of "adulthood" that made it superfluous to give them commands that required obedience. This same naiveté led some prelates to think that Latin would remain the language of the liturgy when it was rendered optional, or that a renewed flowering of penance would accompany the sweeping abrogation of the old laws on fasting and abstinence, or that monasteries would continue to be filled with the soaring melodies of Gregorian chant in Latin while allowing them to introduce the vernacular and other sweeping changes into the monastic Office. Just as with Latin, and with penance, and with chant, mere "encouragements" to adhere to burial have proven ineffective in the face of the new permission in favor of cremation.
Fast forward more than 50 years later, and cremation has become just another normal option for Catholics. The Novus Ordo "Order of Christian Funerals" (Appendix 2) contains regulations on how to celebrate the funeral liturgical rites before or after a cremation. The United States even has an indult allowing the remains of the deceased to be cremated before the funeral Mass and liturgy; the vessel containing the ashes of the deceased could then be included in the entrance procession of the Mass. (Many other countries apparently have similar indults.) In numerous places, Catholic churches now feature columbaria featuring niches for urns, making cremation, not burial, the method de facto favored by the Church in the eyes of many of the faithful. It is clear that neither the letter nor the spirit of the 1963 instruction have been respected, although it arguably led to the current situation.
The new CDF instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo, like the 1963 instruction, expounds on the Church's preference for burial as opposed to cremation. Issued in order to counteract "new ideas contrary to the Church’s faith (that) have also become widespread", the new instruction has been issued with a view to "underlining the 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." Therefore we find statements such as:
"...the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places."
"burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body."
"The Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased."
Nevertheless, the instruction also reiterates the permission for cremation as long as it is not "chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine", and states that the Church has "no doctrinal objections" to cremation (see no. 4). There is no reiteration of the "adverse attitude toward cremation" that is found in the 1963 instruction. Finally, an opening is made to yet another concession (see no. 6):
... the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted. Only in grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature, may the Ordinary, in agreement with the Episcopal Conference or the Synod of Bishops of the Oriental Churches, concede permission for the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence. Nonetheless, the ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained regarding the circumstances of such a conservation.
This permission should be seen in the context of the contemporary situation of the Church, where "exceptional cases" quickly become normal as long as these are in conformity with the secular and worldly spirit favored by many, "practicing" Catholics included. If "cultural conditions" are now enough grounds for local bishops to permit the ashes of the dead to be kept in private homes, then we fear that before long such permissions will multiply, given that it is no longer an uncommon practice. Interestingly, while the bishops are to consult with the Bishops' Conference (or Synod of Bishops of an Oriental Church), there is no mention of the Holy See getting involved with the Bishops' Conferences' determinations on the matter.
In addition to not permitting the division of the ashes of the deceased, the new instruction also does not permit the scattering of the ashes, or their transformation into mementos (such as crystals, jewelry, figurines and the like). At first sight, the instruction seems to come down strongly against these practices, even citing the need to avoid "every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism". Unfortunately, when Cardinal Müller was asked about these by Zenit yesterday (October 25), his response all but deprived his own instruction of all real force (our emphases):
Q: The most incontrovertible “no” in the document is for the dispersion of the ashes of the deceased or their transformation into “commemorative memories, jewelry pieces or other objects.”
Cardinal Müller: This is contrary to the Christian tradition. We do not want the faith to be privatized and have the memory become something individual; it is something that belongs to the Church and to the family of God. Therefore, it is confirmed that it is better to find a common place for our dead, so that not only one who possesses the ring, for example, has a memory of the deceased but also others who want to pray for him. A living person did not only have relations with the person whose ashes he is carrying. Ashes cannot even be divided in several pieces: one in a ring, another in a necklace or in something else. It seems to me to be something altogether ridiculous.
Q: A practice of this sort, therefore, is considered a sin by the Church?
Cardinal Müller: It’s not a mortal sin and it isn’t even prohibited, but it is a symbol that is not in accord with the sentiments and principles of Christianity, because the body of the deceased – as I said – is not the private property of his relatives. We are all children of God and of the Church. A reason given is that objects are preserved on the basis of a testament, but the identity of a person expressed in his body is something else; it is not the inheritance or the almost material property of the relatives or of a parent, a wife or anyone who had relations <with the deceased>. We must surmount this individualism and not only this …