Prior to 1963, the practice of cremation was totally banned in the Catholic Church. The historic Vatican II decrees made provision for cremation among Catholics, but still preferred burial as the norm. This stance was updated in late October when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued new guidelines.
Scattering ashes or burying them?
India’s News 18 reports that the document issued by the CDF did not condemn cremation, but gave further directives on the fate of the ashes. These ashes are not to be scattered, whether at sea or on land. Rather, they are to be kept in an urn, or buried in a cemetery or sacred place.
The Church sites religious reasoning for the new ban. The practice of burying the dead reflects the Church’s teaching on the future resurrection of the body. In contrast, the practice of cremation and scattering ashes have often been linked to Hindu understandings of death. This includes cycles of regeneration, annihilation of the self, and fusion with the universe – decidedly non-Catholic teachings.
Many Hindu organizations in India do not like the new stipulations. Some raise concerns about the diktats becoming civil law or code. There have been strong statements made to the Indian government to prevent such a situation, even warning of “major retaliation.”
Some groups see the situation in a much less religious light. They tout the scientific basis for cremation and scattering ashes. In addition, they see the worldwide spread of the practice as proof that it is a better way. With this in mind, they have a hard time seeing why the Church would issue a ban on these methods.
Mountains or mole hills
Spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Delhi, Father Savarimuthu Shankar, points out that the this new document was advisory and not compulsory. Local bishops still have jurisdiction over these concerns and can make exceptions as needed. He also reminds us that the standards being discussed are not intended to cover Hindus, or even all Christians. They were issued by the Catholic Church and only pertain to its members.