Catholic disposition of human remains

-by Karlo Broussard


‘Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.’
-Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3

““For the living know that they will die,” says the author of Ecclesiastes (Eccles. 9:5). This is a reality we all face. But the question of what to do with the body after death remains. May we cremate it? If so, may we scatter the ashes or must we preserve them? May we donate the body to science?

Such questions weigh heavy on the minds and hearts of many. Therefore, it’s important that we address the question of what we can and can’t do with the body after death.

To dust you shall return

Let’s take the cremation issue first.

In August, the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith (CDF) addressed several pertinent questions concerning cremation in its instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo (“To rise with Christ”) (ARC).The document makes clear that the Church is not opposed to cremation:

The Church raises no doctrinal objections to this practice, since cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life. Thus cremation, in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body. . . . Cremation is not prohibited, “unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine” (ARC 4).

It is important to note that the document doesn’t endorse the practice. It merely notes the Church is not opposed to it. This signals the Church’s strong preference for burial of the deceased, something the document makes clear: “The Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased” (ARC 4).

Ashes abroad

The question that is asked most often is whether we can scatter the ashes of the deceased. The answer is no:

In order that every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism be avoided, it is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry, or other objects. These courses of action cannot be legitimized by an appeal to the sanitary, social, or economic motives that may have occasioned the choice of cremation (ARC 7).

Although the scene of Tom scattering the ashes of his son Daniel in the movie The Way may have been dramatic cinema, it was not Catholic.

Grandma on the mantle?

“Okay, maybe we can’t scatter the ashes,” you say, “so we’ll put Grandma’s ashes on the mantle in our home.” Though it may be a good sentiment, the Church doesn’t permit that either:

[T]he conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted. Only in grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature, may the ordinary, in agreement with the Episcopal Conference or the Synod of Bishops of the Oriental Churches, concede permission for the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence (ARC 6).

Now that we know what we can’t do, what can we do? The CDF specifies that the ashes must be preserved in a sacred place:

When, for legitimate motives, cremation of the body has been chosen, the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority (ARC 5).

Why the sacred place?

The reasons for this can be found in the list of reasons the CDF gives for burying the dead in a sacred place.

  • It expresses the Church’s faith in the resurrection of the body (ARC 3).
  • It shows “the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity” (ARC 3).
  • It “corresponds to the piety and respect owed to the bodies of the faithful departed who through baptism have become temples of the Holy Spirit” (ARC 3).
  • It “encourages family members and the whole Christian community to pray for and remember the dead” and upholds “the relationship between the living and the dead” and “has opposed any tendency to minimize, or relegate to the purely private sphere, the event of death and the meaning it has for Christians” (ARC 3).

What is mine is yours

What does the Church have to say about donating the body for the use of organs and/or medical research?

The Church permits it. With regard to organ donation after death, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity” (2296).

The Catechism is quick to warn, however, against those things that would render organ donation after death immoral:

It is not morally acceptable if the donor or his proxy has not given explicit consent. Moreover, it is not morally admissible to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons (CCC 2296).

One would think these instructions are common sense, but the Church has to make it clear, given the fact that so many have never developed the ability to reason to moral precepts.

Concerning donating the body of the deceased for scientific research, the Catechism answers “yes”: “Autopsies can be morally permitted for legal inquests or scientific research” (2301).

The above Church’s burial norms (sacred place, respect for body, etc.) would apply to the remains of the body after the research is completed.


Discussions about end-of-life issues often revolve around the topic of what constitutes ordinary and extraordinary means of prolonging life. Should we keep Grandma on the ventilator or not? When is it morally just to pull her feeding tube?

These are crucial questions, and they deserve Catholic answers. But the question of what to do with Grandma’s body after death is also an important end-of-life (or after-life) issue. Due to the Church’s clear teaching on this matter, Catholics have one less thing to stress over when dealing with death.”