In Theory: The Vatican opens up on cremation

A man holds an urn at a funeral parlor in Rome, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.

A man holds an urn at a funeral parlor in Rome, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.

(Alessandra Tarantino / AP)

The Vatican released new guidelines last month that allow Catholics to be cremated but do not permit loved ones from scattering ashes or keeping them as mementos.

Cremated remains are to be stored “in a sacred place” that “prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten,” the Religion News Service reports.

The Catholic Church allowed for cremation under certain conditions starting in 1963, but in response to the rising number of cremations and especially the practice of spreading cremated remains, the church stressed its preference for traditional burials in its Oct. 25 decree.

Q. What do you think about the Vatican’s announcement? How does your belief system guide how you treat the remains of loved ones?

Cremation in Judaism has many different people saying many different things, but it boils down to this:

Some say, “Why voluntarily continue what the Nazis did to our people?”

Others say, “It is against Jewish law.”

And others say, “It is not against Jewish law as the ancient Kings of Israel did cremation.”

Let us deal with the second and third answers as ones that cannot be argued against.

If you believe that in the end of days when the dead will come back to life, it means the physical bodies of the dead will return to us alive, then you cannot cremate as the tradition speaks of a bone, the LUZ as the bone that will generate the entire body as it is the only bone that does not disintegrate, but will be destroyed by heat.

However, if you believe that the souls of the dead will come back to life, then that bone being destroyed in cremation does not influence “spiritual reincarnation.”

As regards the Vatican, wanting the ashes to be buried and not spread around provides a place for the person to be remembered, which in Judaism is the operative principle for all of mourning, “L’zkor —Remember!”

Personally, I took the ashes of my beloved grandparents and used them as the food for a set of rose bushes. These rose bushes have bloomed for almost 20 years in beautiful colors. Every time I look at them I remember my grandparents.

Rabbi Mark Sobel
Temple Beth Emet


Iwant to be somewhat sensitive to my fellow Christians and even grant that some of the Vatican’s concerns are legitimate regarding this issue, but let me point out some spiritually practical implications of cremation. First of all, the Bible informs us that if we (our souls, the “we” that is us) depart our material bodies, we are instantaneously transported into the presence of God. The Apostle Paul said, “as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2Co 5:6, 8). This is one of those verses that does damage to the notion of departed souls meandering about and haunting graveyards, since they are not with their moldering remains, they are notably located with God in the spirit realm. What happens to their “Jars of Clay” or “Earthly Tents” (2Co 4:7 and 5:1) is, therefore, no longer of any concern.

Many people believe that it is only respectful of the body to give it a classic burial, fully intact, peacefully resting with a velvet-lined coffin in a glorious plot overlooking a valley where its magnificent headstone may be seen shining upon high, but that’s more about the living than the dead. We get no closer to our expired loved ones by festooning their graves or playing bagpipes for them; we only honor their memory, salve our own grief and commiserate with those left behind. But whether they are cremated and scattered to the four winds or hermetically sealed in opulent tombs, the same laws of entropy apply, and every body translates from “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

I have several relatives inurned at a Forest Lawn columbarium. For me, visiting that place is like touching base with a tangible family tree, but I don’t talk to my deceased great-grandpa there or pretend like there’s more to it than there is. And if that is what people do, it seems to me that there is no less superstition having a particularly situated burial site available than having ashes turned into lucky charms that people wear so that their ancestors may protect them. And the Catholic church does their people no good by promoting such notions as Purgatory, where it’s up to the living to hurry along the awful torture time of their dead, or by providing the Vatican’s imprimatur to relics and amulets infused with supposed bits of fingernails and whatnots from church saints.

Look, choosing cremation or burial doesn’t matter, except that one’s cheaper than the other. The same God who called the world into existence from nothing can easily reconstitute the dead to life, and it won’t matter where their matter lies or what form it has. What ultimately matters is where your heart lies, and that’s a matter between you and Christ.

Rev. Bryan A. Griem


Two sold-out New York Metropolitan Opera performances were cancelled recently when an unidentified gritty powder was found throughout the orchestra pit. They were the ashes of a human opera lover scattered there by his devoted friend. Worse, I know people who are serial scatterers, flinging handfuls of departed on travels for years.

I think this fad is gross, tacky and meaningless. Take your loved ones places they enjoy when they are alive because good opera seats are wasted on ashes.

Remains are but a husk from which all spirit, personality, soul, consciousness — call our spark of life what you will — has been extinguished with the cessation of brain and nervous system electro-chemical firings. Still, I believe only respectful and dignified treatment of dead bodies is called for.

I’m in agreement with the Vatican in disapproving of, my paraphrasing: any scandal, unfitting or superstitious practices with cremated remains. Also to be avoided by Catholics are “pantheism, naturalism or nihilism,” to which I say suit yourself.

I point out however that irreverence can just as easily be associated with traditional corpse burials.

What I really object to is environmental pollution and waste in our disposal — big metal vaults and fancy caskets, nasty chemicals in the bodies, wasted water and pesticides for cemetery grass. Plus as the Vatican acknowledged (and is probably motivating this theological adjustment) cremation soon “will be considered the normal practice,” if indeed it isn’t now, because we are running of space for burials.

Roberta Medford