A Few Questions for the Vatican Regarding Cremation

Full disclosure: I was born and raised Catholic in South Louisiana. As a kid, I even played the church organ for five years. Like, the actual organ, not a euphemistic organ that leaves one scarred for life. I wasn’t an altar boy.

In any event, I haven’t exactly been receiving sacraments on the reg for about the last, oh, 23 years. So I’m admittedly a bit out of the loop when it comes to recent church teachings, which may explain my befuddlement at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s recently updated instructions regarding cremation.

For most of Catholicism’s existence, cremation was frowned upon by the church. And by “frowned upon,” I mean folks who were cremated were denied Catholic funeral rites. Only burial or entombment of the body was acceptable. The philosophy was, if Jesus wasn’t cremated, then His followers shouldn’t be, either.

By the way, could you imagine if Pontius Pilate ordered Jesus’ body cremated after His crucifixion? Coffin manufacturing today would be a cottage industry, and Ash Wednesday would have an entirely different meaning. Plus, it would have made that whole Resurrection thing back then even more impressive.

Are prayers like Wi-Fi, in that proximity affects efficacy?


Anyway, 1963 was a huge year for Catholics. The Second Vatican Council reformed Catholic doctrine to make the church less anachronistic, and the first Catholic U.S. president was assassinated.

While the latter event gave rise to the modern-day conspiracy theory movement, the former gave Catholics permission to be cremated, as long as it wasn’t done as a reproach of the church. I’m not sure how a priest could determine whether a dead person wanted to piss off the Vatican via cremation, but hey, at least it was progress.

“During the intervening years,” the congregation stated, “the practice of cremation has notably increased in many countries, but simultaneously, new ideas contrary to the Church’s faith have also become widespread.”

Thus, the new guidelines, which bar the scattering of cremains “in the air, on land, at sea, or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry, or other objects.” Rather, the ashes of the departed are to be buried all in one place in cemeteries or other “sacred places” — not divided up among family members or kept at home— so the dead won’t be “excluded” from the prayers of other Christians.

This leads me to my first question for the VCDF…

Are prayers like Wi-Fi, in that proximity affects efficacy?

Like, if you want to pray for the dead, does the effectiveness of your supplications increase as you get closer to the remains of the person you’re praying for? If so, I’m glad my grandfather didn’t die in Europe during World War II, because I’d have to fly all the way to France to pray for him — not to mention I never would’ve been born.

As a South Louisiana native, I’m really leaning toward cremation just because I don’t want to have to worry about my coffin popping up and parading down Florida Boulevard during the next big flood event. Nor do I want to be buried in a graveyard that will become part of the Gulf of Mexico, like what’s happening to the burial sites in Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish, as in the parish where I was born and raised (not from the dead…yet).

That brings me to my next question:

If a cemetery becomes inaccessible to the faithful — whether due to erosion, climate change, earthquake, nuclear fallout — are the departed also excluded from prayers and remembrances?

I’m starting to think Catholics should only be buried in geologically stable repositories, like nuclear waste is.

The instructions restate the church’s position that, while the soul departs the body at death, “God will give incorruptible life to our body” and reunite it with the soul at the time of the resurrection.

Are cannibalized Catholics doomed to be excluded from the resurrection, or is letting someone eat you to give them life one of the most Christlike things you can do?

“By burying the bodies of the faithful,” the guidelines say, “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.”

So, if the body is “integral” to being resurrected, and you insist that all the ashes be buried in the same place…

Does God need all your original parts to resurrect you?

I know, in the past, the Catholic Church has affirmed organ donation is a good and acceptable thing. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI was signed up to donate his organs before he became head of the church. But…

Can you see where some may infer from these instructions that your body needs to be buried completely intact to be resurrected?

After all, Jesus didn’t donate any organs. In fact, He took them all back to Heaven with Him.

Ooh! Is that why popes can’t be organ donors?

See, I read how, once Benedict XVI became the bishop of Rome, his offer to save lives after his death was rescinded because — according to the head of the Vatican’s health office — a pope’s body remains intact (i.e., no organs removed) because it belongs to the entire church. But then I read the comments of Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the VCDF, who said, “The cadaver of the deceased person is not the private property of the family, but the deceased is the son of God, part of the body of Christ, of the people of God.”

So help me out here.

If popes can’t donate their organs because their bodies belong to the entire church (aka “the body of Christ”), why are regular Catholics permitted to donate their organs if their bodies also belong to the entire church (aka “the body of Christ”)?

While you’re answering that question, let me pose a couple other queries.

Wouldn’t shooting someone’s remains into space make them closer to God, and thus easier to resurrect?

What if a person’s body is eaten?

Aside from the whole “dignity of the human body” issue, the remains are eventually spread all over the place. This seems to be a problem according to the cremation guidelines, namely the part that says all the cremains need to be buried in the same place.

Are cannibalized Catholics doomed to be excluded from the resurrection, or is letting someone eat you to give them life one of the most Christlike things you can do?

I saw that movie Alive. I’m sure there were plenty of Catholics on the 1972 Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes who were later consumed by the survivors so they could live. No transubstantiation was necessary.

What about all the Catholics who were cremated before 1963? Do they get retroactive dispensation, or are they screwed for being born at the wrong time?

I always wonder about things like this when the rules are changed.

Wouldn’t shooting someone’s remains into space make them closer to God, and thus easier to resurrect?

This goes back to that whole proximity thing.

I appreciate any enlightenment the folks at the Vatican could offer on these points of confusion. If I come up with any more questions, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’ll see what I can glean from the next wedding or funeral I attend.RedShtick-Top-ColumnStop


About Jeremy White

Jeremy White
Jeremy White is an engineer by education, but a smartass by birth. He managed to overcome the obstacles presented by his technical background, and has brilliantly devised a way to make a living making fun of people.

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