Cremation and the Perception of Death: The Vatican States that Cremated Remains should be Stored in a “Sacred Place”
In recent years, cremation has become increasingly popular as a means of disposing of human remains. Cheaper than burial, cremation is more accessible for lower income families. As a result of increasing popularity, there are more cremated remains (“cremains”) than ever before. The question of how cremains should be treated after cremation often leads to difficult decisions by family members. Among other things, cremains may be buried, kept by family members, scattered in a meaningful place, preserved in pieces of jewelry or other mementos, or even grown into a tree. The question of how loved one’s cremains should be treated is a deeply personal question that reflects the family’s and the deceased individual’s perception of death.
The Vatican has recently chimed in on how Catholics should treat cremated remains. In 1963, the Vatican stated that the burial of deceased bodies should be the norm, but that cremation is not per se anti-Catholic, and Catholic funeral rites should not be denied to cremated individuals. In response, however, to the growing popularization of cremation and the creativity with which cremains have been treated, the Vatican issued a statement declaring that cremains should be kept in “sacred place,” such as a church or cemetery. Treatment of cremains in other ways, such as incorporating the cremains into jewelry or scattering the cremains, is sacrilegious. This statement is a reflection of the Vatican’s dissatisfaction with changing views on the perception of death. In essence, the Vatican feels that the manner in which cremains are often treated in modern society reflect secular notions of death or other “New Age” perceptions of rebirth. The new guidelines promulgated by the Vatican state “[b]y burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity.” As a result, individuals wishing to conform to Vatican guidelines must have special permission from a bishop to keep the cremains of a loved one at home.
The Vatican’s stance on the treatment of cremains reflects the shifting views related to the connection between the treatment of human remains and personal perceptions of the meaning of death.