Friday, January 06, 2017 - Updated: 7:00 am
QUESTION: I read the most recent church document on care for cremated remains and noted that they were to be buried or placed in a mausoleum. There was also a strong objection to people keeping those cremated remains in their homes or as “keepsakes.” Doesn’t that seem like the very thing the church does with the “relics” of the saints?
ANSWER: The custom of venerating the remains of the saints is ancient. In Roman times, Christians were thought to be a threat to the empire, and so they were persecuted and brutally martyred. Roman authorities had no respect for the bodies of the martyrs so their fellow Christians took great risks to prevent desecration of the bodies and give them a proper burial.
With this also began the custom of celebrating the Eucharist near the burial places of the martyrs, especially on the anniversary of their deaths. The mortal remains of the saints (relics) were a sacred reminder of their faith and bravery. Eventually, when churches were built, often the relics of a martyr were transferred from their burial place to a special place in the churches.
Burial or entombment of the remains of Christians within a church or sacred burial ground was an expression of the respect Christians had for the remains of their dead. When the numbers of Christians grew and they were found in almost all parts of the known world, the custom of respect for the remains of the saints changed. Christians began to desire some remembrance of the martyrs as personal possessions. What began as possessing a piece of clothing or personal article used by the saint gradually extended to the desire to possess a part (fragment) of the bodily remains of a saint. This extension opened the way to misuse.
Once the line was crossed and people personally possessed what was before reserved for burial in churches and sacred spaces soon saw the buying and selling of relics. This lucrative “trade” in sacred remains was condemned by the church. Thus, the burial of the deceased in sacred space is strongly encouraged. The veneration of relics of the saints is encouraged there. The possession of the remains of saints by private individuals is discouraged. It is not only sad but sacrilegious that what are said to be “authentic” relics of saints can be purchased on Internet sites.
The church applies this experience with the mortal remains of the saints to its continuing respect for the bodies of all the faithful departed. Thus, the new Vatican document restates a longstanding preference for burial of the deceased. If cremation is chosen, the remains must be buried or placed in a suitable permanent place within a cemetery.
This document reflects the experience of pastors and the faithful in seeing the cremated remains of loved ones separated into individual containers for the family to “take home.” It also notes a more recent custom of having the remains made into jewelry.
The respect owed to the body during life should continue at death. The respectful burial of the remains of the dead is the most significant means to do so.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.