In response to a new set of dubia, or doubts, on the Catholic Church’s cremation practices, the Vatican’s doctrinal office has reaffirmed a ban on spreading ashes in nature, but has said they can be conserved in “sacred places.”
In an Oct. 30 letter, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference and Pope Francis’s special peace envoy for the war in Ukraine, asked the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) about preservation of the ashes of the deceased.
Zuppi reportedly said he had established a commission in the Archdiocese of Bologna in order to give “a Christian response” to problems related to the growing number of people who wish to cremate their bodies and have their ashes spread in nature.
Part of the Bologna commission’s mandate, according to a Dec. 9 response from the DDF, is also to ensure that those seeking to spread a loved one’s ashes are not doing so to cut costs, as it is cheaper to scatter ashes than to bury them, and to provide direction on what to do with ashes once the term for their preservation is over.
In this regard, Zuppi submitted two questions to the DDF, the first of which was, given the canonical ban on scattering the ashes of the deceased, whether it was possible “to prepare a defined and permanent sacred place for the commingled accumulation and preservation of the ashes of the baptized, indicating the basic details of each person so as not to lose the memory of their names, similar to what occurs in ossuaries, where the mineralized remains of the deceased are cumulatively deposited and preserved?”
His second question was whether a family was allowed “to keep a portion of their family member’s ashes in a place that is significant for the history of the deceased.”
In a response signed by both the prefect of the DDF, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, and Pope Francis himself, reference was made to an August 2016 document from the DDF addressing the same issue, titled “Ad resurgendum cum Christo: Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Conservation of the Ashes in the Case of Cremation.”
That document reinforced the Catholic Church’s traditional stance that ashes cannot be scattered, divided up or kept at home, but must be kept in a sacred place approved by the church, such as a cemetery.
This regulation “still retains all its validity,” the DDF said in its response to Zuppi.
Pastoral reasons for storing ashes in a sacred place, it said, are that it “ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community….”