Scattering Ashes

It’s not a choice in the US edition of the Rite of Christian Funerals, but the Italian bishops are permitting the option in the newest translation of the funeral rites.

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Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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14 Responses to Scattering Ashes

  1. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Well then, it’s not exactly a translation, is it? ICEL tried to “translate” back in 2001, and the result was a rejected English translation of the 2002 Missal, and we’re still waiting.

  2. Todd says:

    Jeff, thanks for commenting, but we’re not talking about the Roman Missal, but the Order of Christian Funerals: two entirely different documents.

  3. Liam says:

    That appears to be a very inaccurate summary of what the Italian bishops did.

    The translation is simply providing for the case of a funeral mass with cremains, just as currently is the case with the US. The translation does not (at least according to this news report) touch the issue of scattering.

    Rather, the bishops’ *statement* is merely that they will not as a pastoral matter a fortiori deny a funeral to someone whose remains will be scattered. There is no discussion of whether the ritual of committal has been adapted to this circumstance, so it seems that the only thing at issue is the denial of a funeral, not the ritual itself, et cet.

  4. Anne says:

    Some people believe that it’s now permitted for Catholics to scatter ashes at sea. Not true. Burial at sea is permitted in some cases but the cremated remains are to be buried along with the urn, coffin, box etc.

  5. Todd says:

    For many casual Catholics, the funeral’s the thing. They won’t care about the particulars of ritual when ashes are getting scattered at sea or on a mountainside. In effect, this is practically an endorsement of the idea.

  6. Liam says:


    Do you approve? Do you think the bishops should have held firm on denying funerals? Or do you think they should come up with a required ritual for scattering? Does it matter to you?

  7. Liam says:

    The catechesis that occurred in these parts after JFK Jr’s scattering was remembered for a while. As was what happened about eulogies when Cdl Law put his foot down at the funeral Congressman Moakley (second only to Tip O’Neill in veneration in these parts) to permit only one 5-minute personal remembrance at his funeral – that was a memorable ritual earthquake.

    Then again, Cdl Law first made waves when he came here by limiting anticipatory Masses on Saturday evenings to one per parish unless there was demonstrable pastoral need (typically only for different vernacular languages).

  8. Todd says:

    Liam, to tell you the truth, I don’t see much scientific difference between mixing one’s ashes above ground in water, dirt, and/or air versus hiding ashes or decomposing bodies underground. If we’re talking constituent molecules, then eventually it will all recycle to use that would not be seemly for a gruesomely intact body part. At least cremated remains are unrecognizable. And already similar to dust.

    People scatter remains on or near places that held special attraction in life. As I think about it, I can sympathize with the thought.

    What’s the hang-up? The lack of a geographical place of internment? Is that essential to the Christian observance of death? Suppose a loved one has ashes scattered st sea. Weeks, months, or years later mourners can still travel to the seashore to remember in a physical place.

    Liam, do you have the goods on the importance of the place of burial in Christian tradition?

  9. Liam says:


    My beef is only with your inaccurate summary of what the bishops did, followed up with a descriptive reminder (followed by illustrations) of what the Church requires. You responded with a sideswipe at casual Catholics in which I couldn’t tell if there was an embedded swipe at the bishops.

    The issue of burial is not a scientific one. It isn’t even necessarily a theological one – the resurrection of the body IS an important Christian belief, but it’s not predicated on the reconfiguring of non-decaying atoms (after all, when the Church canonized martyrs whose remains were burned and scattered, she was also declaring that their beatific souls would be reunited with their glorified bodies on the Last Day).

    It is, however, a ritual and liturgical matter. The committal ritual is intended to convey respect for the integrity of the human person – by treating the body as a proxy for the departed soul, we can see perhaps where the Church’s preferences are grounded (pun intended). It’s not so different from the reason I think many of us today are a bit put off by the fractioning of saints’ bodies in the past.

    So, from the Church’s perspective, scattering that is disrespectful of the intergrity of the person or dismissive (in varying degrees) of the necessarily corporeal materiality of the human person (and yes there are Catholics – I’ve met them – who are not necessarily anti-Catholic but who’ve imbibed some our modern culture that resists many aspects of our Incarnational theology).

    Since I see Incarnational theology as undergirding much of the progressive Catholic desiderata, I can have some sympathy with an approach that is more conserving of ritual treatement of our mortal remains. It’s not a rigid thing with me, but an emphasis. A sufficient emphasis, however, that mere pastoral accommodation would be insufficient to overcome.

  10. Liam says:

    Let me be clearer from a very personal perspective:

    I would prefer to have my remains cremated. Having them placed without a container (which would be more difficult to pull off as a logistical matter) in one of several places would be more meaningful to me than being interred somewhat.

    However, I recognize that there might be those who would come to regret such an action, and I think that possibility probably trumps what’s more meaningful to me. On top of that, I have the issue to consider about the Church’s own clear preferences and the reasons therefor, and I don’t think what’s merely meaningful for me by itself trumps those either.

  11. Todd says:

    “You responded with a sideswipe at casual Catholics in which I couldn’t tell if there was an embedded swipe at the bishops.”

    Liam, I didn’t intend to give offense. I’m cynical of the main current of humanity. From experience, I know that when a priest grants a concession on a matter of principle that rubs strongly against the current, the principle soon gets swept away. I think that’s simple human nature. Or to the cynic, a mob mentality.

    I have to say I’ve never read a treatise (or heard one) on the Church’s approach to the related notions of integrity, soul, incarnation. (I knew you’d have it at hand, my friend.)

    I know the Church’s teaching, and I can parrot it when I need to do so. Denying a memorial service to someone whose ashes have been scattered seems petty to me. Denying a funeral for something that hasn’t been done yet seems equally ill-advised.

  12. Liam says:

    Actually, Todd, you certainly have read things like this from the Order of Christian Funerals – you just may have forgotten them in this context:

    “Since in baptism the body was marked with the sign of the Trinity and became the temple of the Holy Spirit, Christians respect and honro the bodies of the dead and the places where they rest. Any customs associated with the preparation of the body of the deceased should always be marked with dignity and reverence and never with the despair of those who have no hope….For the final disposition of the body, it is the ancient CHristian custom to bury or entomb the bodies of the dead; cremation is permitted, unless it is evident that cremation was chosen for anti-Christian motives.” [The text at various other places has other remarks about the treatment of the body.]

    I would suggest that hope is not only referring to resurrection generally, but of the specifically Christian understanding of the resurrection of the complete person soul & glorified body.

    Anyway, I would also be inclined to question denying a memorial service for someone whose remains have been scattered. But I would also be open to having the question answered in a way that might justify the denial.

    Regarding the funeral, the issue would only arise if those arranging for the funeral aren’t discreet enough to indicate that the committal of the remains will take place apart from funeral Mass (which is quite common these days for perfectly licit reasons – people are often buried far from the site of funeral services), though I would not encourage deceit in this regard.

  13. Liam says:

    I should have underscored: the sanctification of the body through the sacraments entails not only respect for the mortal remains of each of the faithful, but also for the “places where they rest.” A diffuse place make that respect and honoring more diffuse. Note, I didn’t say impossible. But I do think the combined (if seemingly contrary) influence of (1) New Age/Eastern ideas about the mere spiritedness of the real human person, and (2) the residues of Manicheanism in the Calvinism that so long dominated much of American Christianity, means that it is worth highlighting the authentically Christian anthropology (meaning, the defintion of who the human person is) in the light of Incarnational theology.

    I wish we had more homilies on the resurrection of the body and its implications for not just our liturgy but spiritual praxis.

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