During a September series between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in Dodger Stadium, Giants’ rightfielder Hunter Pence wore a necklace that contained the cremains of a devoted Dodgers’ fan, after the Dodgers refused the request to have the man’s daughter spread his ashes on the field. The plea was one of many that the Dodgers and the rest of the MLB teams receive and routinely refuse yearly. There is an ongoing campaign to develop a compromise of sorts in that the teams could allow on certain days a small amount of a person’s ashes to be spread on the field. Setting aside the pragmatic reasoning, this decision ultimately represents an act of charity toward the dead and their loved ones.
The Book of Tobit reveals God’s pleasure in Tobit’s dogged persistence in burying the dead (Tobit 14:14) and it has long been considered a corporal work of mercy in the Christian tradition. Understanding why God looks favorably upon this act however can help us to see the reason the Church insists that cremated remains not be scattered.
Christians have long seen death not as annihilation nor as the releasing of the soul from its incarceration in the body, but as having a fundamental positive meaning. By being united to Christ’s death and resurrection in Baptism, the believer sees his own death in Christ as the pathway to a share in His glorious resurrection. Like the resurrection of the Lord, the Christian’s is a bodily resurrection. Our temporal bodies become as a seed of the body that will rise in glory (c.f. 1Cor 15:42-44).
This motivation helps to reveal the meaning of Christian burial. If we really believe that our resurrected bodies are found in seed form in our earthly bodies, then our actions ought to reveal this. Seeds must be buried and die so that new life may spring forth. Christian burial is a sign of this; a sacrament that point to this reality.
Historically, pagans practiced funeral rites that included cremation, reflecting the widespread belief that there was no resurrection of the body. Even when the pagans did practice burial (based on the belief that only when their bodies were buried could the soul rest), the Christians still buried their separately from the pagans because of the great difference in their understanding of the future resurrection. It was this connection between paganism (and later certain secret societies and cults) and cremation that led the Church to remove it as an option for the faithful.
Considering some of the practical difficulties of burial in modern times (mostly exorbitant costs and decreasing space) the Church relaxed some of her restrictions on cremation when the new code of Canon Law was released in 1983. Burial because of its nature as a sign remains the preferred method, but unless it is chosen for reasons contrary to Christian beliefs (i.e. a lack of belief in the resurrection of the body) then it is permitted when necessary (Canon 1176.3). Cremation can testify to the omnipotence of God in raising up the deceased body to new life and therefore “in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body” (Piam et constantem, 5 July 1963).
The cremated remains of the person should always “be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery, or, in certain cases, in a church or an area which has been set aside for this purpose…” (Instruction Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Conservation of Ashes in the Case of Cremation, CDF, 2016). This means that the ashes should never be scattered or preserved as mementos or pieces of jewelry. To do any of these things would be testimony of pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism.
Based on what has been said so far, one might be willing to concede that the prohibition on scattering ashes should be binding on Christians, but what about non-Christians? In other words, what if the man whose remains Hunter Pence wore didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body? How is insisting on his burial an act of charity to both he and his family?
Of particular mention as well is that whether or not someone believes in the resurrection of the body has no bearing on whether it is true. It may be an article of faith but it is an article of true faith, and so we as Christians have an obligation to do all that we can to bear witness to this truth. Burial or interment also constitutes an act of charity to the dead as well. For the dead it creates a “monument” that serves as a reminder to the living to pray for the deceased. It assures that they will not be forgotten. One whose ashes have been scattered will soon be forgotten, perhaps not by their immediate loved ones, but to subsequent generations they will be as one blotted out. By not spreading ashes, we are spreading hope.
This highlights the intrinsic connection between the corporal work of mercy, burying the dead, and the spiritual work of mercy of praying for the dead. This is perhaps the “easiest” of all works of mercy but also the most often neglected. To pray for the dead is a great act of charity especially considering that only Catholics do it. Very likely that man whose remains were worn by the Giants’ outfielder and many others like him have no one to pray for him. We may have no way of knowing how the person has been judged, but we always trust that God’s mercy is more powerful than any man’s sins. And so we pray and by praying, ironically enough, repair the harm done by our own sins, reducing our own time in Purgatory. Charity covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).
Many of the souls in Purgatory spend more time there than they should for want of having someone to pray for them. Therefore the Church Militant devotes a whole month of special focus to relieving their suffering and offers a plenary indulgence for the Holy Souls during the week of Nov 2-Nov 8 each year. By way of reminder, one can obtain a plenary indulgence (one per day), when in a state of grace and with a complete detachment from sin, receive Holy Communion, pray for the intentions of the Pope and go to Confession within 20 days before or after the act (one Confession can cover all 7 days, but the other acts must be done daily). One can gain this particular indulgence by, in addition to the above conditions, devoutly visiting a cemetery and praying for the departed, even if the prayer is only mental.
A partial indulgence for the Souls in Purgatory can be obtained when the Requiem aeternam is prayed. This can be prayed all year, but should be especially prayed during the month of November:
Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.