Containers of cremated human remains — sometimes called “cremains” — were dropped off on two separate occasions on the doorstep of Charlotte’s Holy Cross Church shortly after Father William Coffas became pastor in 2020.
In both instances, Father Coffas explained, people were cleaning out houses — possibly to ready them for sale — and didn’t know what to do with the cremains when they stumbled upon them. Although it’s heartbreaking to think of someone’s remains being neglected in such a fashion, the incidents demonstrate why the Catholic Church offers instructions about cremation and the treatment of the bodies of the deceased, he said.
The Catholic Church has permitted cremation since 1963
For centuries, the church prohibited cremation out of respect for the body and a desire to preserve it intact, Father Coffas said. But in 1963, the Vatican ruled that Catholics could be cremated so long as they didn’t choose cremation in order to demonstrate disbelief in the resurrection of the dead and the sacredness of the human body, he said.
“As Catholics, we believe in the resurrection of the body. We believe that one day we will be reunited with our bodies in the resurrection of the dead, and just as the Lord’s body was raised, so too our bodies, in his glory, will be raised up,” explained Father Coffas, who also is pastor at Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in Greece.
Catholics also recognize that their bodies are gifts from God, thus, deserving of respect even after death, he added.
Although the Catholic Church now recognizes cremation as an option for Catholics, its first preference remains burial, Father Coffas noted. And even when cremation is chosen, church teaching suggests that cremation should take place after the deceased’s funeral liturgy, he said.
“This comes out of a consideration of the fact that the body was washed at baptism, nurtured and nourished through the gift of the Eucharist, anointed at confirmation and at the sacrament of the sick, and so our appreciation and our respect of the body carries even into the funeral rites,” he said.
The Catholic Church does not permit ashes to be stored at home, scattered or divided
In 2016, the Vatican released “To Rise With Christ,” a document that provides further instructions related to cremation. The document explains that the ashes of cremated Catholics must be laid to rest in a sacred place, such as a cemetery or another location dedicated for this purpose by church authorities.
“The reservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community,” the document states. “It prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect, which eventually is possible, most especially once the immediately subsequent generation has too passed away. Also it prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices.”
Thus, it’s not permissible in the Catholic faith to keep a loved ones’ cremains in an urn on the mantel of a home. Nor is it allowed to divide a loved one’s ashes among several smaller urns or pieces of jewelry, such as lockets, Father Coffas said.
“Eventually that person that has that locket or that little urn will also die some day, and what’s going to happen to those human remains? God forbid they are just thrown away. A little locket could wind up at an estate sale or a thrift store or something,” he remarked.
When cremains are interred, loved ones have a place to pray, remember the deceased
The scattering of cremains — either over land or a body of water — also is not permitted by the Catholic Church, Father Coffas added.
“I explain it to my parishioners that everyone needs a place,” he said. “You need to be able to go to a place and have the opportunity to pray for that family member or your friend. That is what a cemetery provides.”
If Father Coffas learns that people have cremains in their home, he typically will suggest they have them interred in a cemetery or mausoleum. And when he found cremains on his doorstep at Holy Cross in 2020, his first call was to Rochester’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, where he sits on the board of directors. He made arrangements to have the cremains interred in the cemetery’s St. Joseph of Arimathea Crypts, which are set aside for the cremated remains of those whose loved ones are unable to pay for burial.
“I think sometimes people think, ‘We can’t afford to place Uncle Joe at the cemetery, so we’ll just scatter his remains.’ The option that Holy Sepulchre affords is a great pastoral help to people,” Father Coffas said.
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