A recent letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to all bishops offered guidance on the care for the bodies of the dead in light of new techniques promoted for ecological benefits.  The letter, sent to Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., and signed by the Prefect, Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria, SJ, follows:

Your Excellency,

In accordance with civil laws, new techniques for treating the bodies of the deceased as alternative practices to cremation, presented as preferable because they are more ecological, are spreading more and more often in Western countries.

These techniques aim to dispose of the bodies of the deceased in a way that is presumed to be rapid and hygienically safe, as well as respectful of the environment, since the residues of the treatment would be released into nature, with the intent of fertilizing the soil. However, this practice implies an approach which, in fact, tends to eliminate any trace of a sense of the sacred and of effective pity for the mortal remains of the deceased.

In this sense, I would like to point out the following:

1. The Church insistently recommends the burial of the bodies of the dead, as noted in n. 3 of the instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo, published on 25 October 2016.

2. Cremation, chosen for reasons not contrary to Christian doctrine, is not forbidden, but the ashes of the dead must "be kept in a sacred place", for the reasons referred to in the aforementioned Instruction (cf. nn. 4 and 5).

3. "To avoid any kind of pantheist, naturalist or nihilist misunderstanding, the dispersion of the ashes in the air, on earth or in water or in any other way is not permitted" (n. 7).

4. In the cases of new techniques for treating corpses, the same criteria mentioned above are to be applied: what remains after the treatment of corpses must be "kept in a sacred place" intended for burial and not simply in a place blessed by the clergy.

5. Furthermore, if, in the implementation of a new technique for treating corpses there was nothing left [of the body], such a practice would not be acceptable from the point of view of Catholic doctrine.

To face the spread of such unacceptable practices, the Pastors of the Church of this Bishops' Conference are called to explain to the faithful the incompatibility of these practices with the teaching of the Catholic Church. At the same time, it is good that they reaffirm this teaching with special reference to the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the soul, the respect due to the bodies of the faithful departed and the communion between the living and the dead, rejecting any materialistic, naturalistic, pantheistic and nihilistic approach that often underlies these techniques of treating corpses.

Finally, I turn to you with the kind request to make the contents of this letter public.

Most devotedly yours in the Lord,

Luis F. Cardinal Ladaria, SJ