In December 2023, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a reply to His Eminence, Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi, Archbishop of Bologna, in answer to several questions concerning the preservations of ashes of the deceased following cremation. The Dicastery’s response centered on two issues: firstly, the possibility of providing for a sacred place for the commingled accumulation and preservation of ashes of the baptized, and, secondly, whether a family may be permitted to keep a portion of their family member’s ashes in a place that is significant for the history of the deceased.

In its reply, the Dicastery made reference to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recent Instruction on this same topic, Ad resurgendum cum Christo. In that 2016 document, the Congregation affirmed the 1963 ruling of the Holy See (Piam et Constantem) that, while “all necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed,” cremation is not “opposed per se to the Christian religion.” Accordingly, the sacraments and funeral rites should not be denied to those who have asked that they be cremated, under the condition that this choice has not been made through “a denial of Christian dogmas.”

During the intervening decades, the practice of cremation increased in many countries, including the United States. In response to this development, the Congregation reiterated the constant teaching of the Church that the baptized truly participate in the life of the Risen Christ; furthermore, at the time of the resurrection of the just, God will give incorruptible life to the body and reunite it with the soul. This belief, the Congregation stated, is most fittingly expressed through burial of the deceased, which shows the “great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity” (Ad resurgendum cum Christo, 3). At the same time, the practice of cremation does not necessarily indicate a rejection of the Christian belief in the soul’s immortality or the resurrection of the body. As such, even though the Church continues to prefer that bodies of the deceased be buried, cremation is not prohibited, “unless it is chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine” (CIC, can. 1176 § 3). 

The Congregation also noted that, similar to the requirements for the disposition of the deceased body, ashes of the faithful should be laid to rest in a sacred place (e.g., a cemetery, church, or chapel) that has been set aside for this purpose and dedicated by the ecclesiastical authority. This preservation of ashes in a sacred location serves several complementary ends: it “ensures that [the deceased] are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community. It prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect, which eventuality is possible, most especially once the immediately subsequent generation has too passed away. Also, it prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices” (Ad resurgendum cum Christo, 5). For these same reasons, it is not appropriate to preserve ashes in a domestic residence, nor may ashes be divided amongst family members, scattered in the air, land, or sea, or preserved in mementoes, pieces of jewelry, or other objects (Ad resurgendum cum Christo, 7). The Congregation stated that, while such observances are becoming increasingly popular, often for sentimental or cost-savings reasons, they do not constitute permitted Catholic practices. 

In its most recent December 2023 statement, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith again stressed that ashes of the deceased must be kept in a sacred place. It also recalled that the resurrection of the body “does not imply the recuperation of the identical particles of the matter that once formed the human being’s body;” that is, “the resurrection can occur even if the body has been totally destroyed or dispersed.” The distribution of holy relics of the saints is one practical application of this principle.

With this in mind, the Dicastery offered the following guidance in its response:

  • A “defined and permanent sacred place may be set aside for the commingled accumulation and preservation of the ashes of deceased baptized persons.”

This practice, similar to what occurs in ossuaries, is frequently observed in Italy and other European countries, where space for burials is limited.

  • The ecclesiastical authority “may consider and evaluate a request by a family to preserve in an appropriate way a minimal part of the ashes of their relative in a place of significance for the history of the deceased person, provided that every type of pantheistic, naturalistic, or nihilistic misunderstanding is ruled out and also provided that the ashes of the deceased are kept in a sacred place.”

Here, the Dicastery foresees the possibility of reserving a smaller portion of ashes in a sacred place that is significant for the history of the deceased.  

Following the publication of the Dicastery’s response, the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine issued a letter to the Catholic Cemetery Conference in April 2024, indicating that these two accommodations address a particular pastoral situation in the Archdiocese of Bologna which is not applicable to the context of the United States. As such, the Committee recommended that the Congregation’s 2016 guidance concerning the preservation of ashes of the deceased in a sacred place continue to be followed in this country.

In parish ministry, clergy will sometimes learn from family and friends of their intention to reserve a portion of cremated remains apart from the primary place of interment. This provides a priest or deacon with the opportunity to offer catechesis on the usual manner of interring the body or cremated remains in a sacred place and to discourage the  practice of keeping portions of ashes in non-sacred places (e.g., domestic residences, jewelry, etc.). With clarity and pastoral sensitivity, clergy should affirm the Church’s belief concerning the resurrection of the dead and the importance of praying for the deceased, an act that is fostered by the interment of the body or ashes in a public and sacred place.

As the Order of Christian Funerals states, the Church commends the souls of the faithful departed “to the mercy of God in the sure and certain hope that all who have died with Christ will rise with him on the last day” (175). In accordance with the apostolic faith of the Church, and through the care with which they treat the mortal remains of the deceased, Christians profess their hope in the risen Christ as the “principle and source of our future resurrection” (Ad resurgendum cum Christo, 2).