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Ask the Register: relics and cremains?

Q. Why does the Church promote the veneration of relics, but does not allow retaining the cremains of loved ones?


A. During the time of the early Church, the Romans, who had no expectation of the resurrection of the dead, practiced cremation. In contrast to the Romans, Christians followed the practice of the Jews, who buried the bodies of the deceased. By doing this, Christian burial practices were set apart from pagan practices. Since Christians believe in the resurrection of the body, proper respect should be given to the body, and the burial of the body allows for that respect to be shown. 

The Catholic Church recommends the traditional, pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead, but permits cremation, unless cremation is done with a motive that is contrary to the teachings of the Christian faith. For instance, it would be wrong to desire to be cremated out of disgust or hatred of the body or the material world. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, created by God along with all of creation, and so it is good. Moreover, it would be wrong to be cremated to signify denial of the resurrection of the body, which is a fundamental Christian belief.

In 2016, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued an instruction regarding the burial of the dead and conservation of ashes in case of cremation. The instruction, approved by Pope Francis, reiterated that the burial of the dead needs to take place in cemeteries or other sacred places. By doing so, the Church affirms the belief in the resurrection of body, and that it signifies that the body is an integral part of the human person.

The CDF makes clear that “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.” The conservation of ashes in a domestic residence is also not permitted. The CDF states that “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” would such permission be given to keep them in a private residence.

The burying of the faithful departed encourages the family and friends of the deceased to continue to pray for the deceased. It also allows for the entire Christian community to remember, and pray for, the deceased.

A relic is an example of a sacramental, which is not a sacrament, but bears resemblance to them. A sacramental is a sign that is instituted by the Church for the spiritual benefit of Her members.

The word relic comes from the Latin reliquiae, meaning “remains.” In the early Church, Mass was celebrated over graves containing the remains of martyrs, those who shed their blood for Christ. As time went one, fragments of the martyrs’ remains were embedded in altars throughout the Christian world. 

There are different classes of relics. A first-class relic is the blood, piece of bone or any part of a saint. Second-class relics include any object sanctified by close contact with a saint or Jesus. Third-class relics are objects that have been touched to either first- or second-class relics.

It’s important to note that the Church promotes the veneration of the relics of saints, not just anyone. The saints have been canonized by the Church, declaring them to be with God in all His glory. Relics remind the faithful of the reality and attainability of holiness, with the grace of God. And contrary to cremains held in a domestic residence, relics are meant for public veneration.

The Church does not claim that relics have magical powers. Rather, in venerating the relics of a saint who was made holy through Christ, we show respect to Christ himself. As St. Jerome said, “we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.”

Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to 3700 Sheridan Blvd., Suite 10, Lincoln NE 68506-6100. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.

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