Vatican cremation directive expected to be ignored

Catholic Church in Ireland says the conservation of ashes in the home is not allowed

The Vatican’s instruction to the Catholic faithful that the cremated remains of loved ones should be spread only in consecrated graveyards, or stored in churches will be widely ignored, a leading Irish crematorium has said.

In Rome, the Vatican’s leading doctrinal expert, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), accepted that cremations are increasingly popular.

However, he insisted that the ashes of loved ones must be kept “in a holy place, that is a cemetery or a church or in a place that has been specifically dedicated to this purpose”.

“The conservation of ashes in the home is not allowed. Furthermore, in order to avoid any form of pantheistic or naturalistic or nihilistic misunderstanding, the dispersion of ashes in the air, on the ground, on water or in some other way as well as the conversion of cremated ashes into commemorative objects is not allowed,” he said.


Voicing the Catholic Church’s 2,000-year preference for burials, the German cardinal went on: “We come from the earth and we shall return to the earth. In memory of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, burial is the most appropriate way to express our faith and hope in bodily resurrection.”

Division of ashes

In Ireland, the Catholic Communications Office said the Vatican’s directive is “not a set of discretionary guidelines” and practices such as the division of ashes among family members or their preservation in pieces of jewellery are prohibited.

The regulations, it said, will not mean that ashes will have to be stored in church buildings, but it may require the establishment of a columbarium – a type of tomb for ashes in cemeteries owned by Catholic parishes.

However, Pádraig O’Reilly, the manager of Lakelands Crematorium in Cavan, said he believed Church figures were “wasting their time” by trying to impose the new directive since it is “a family decision”.

“If they don’t have a burial plot, it’s an extra financial burden on the family,” he said. Half of all cremated remains are scattered in a favoured place, or buried in family plots. People from rural Ireland are more likely to bury ashes than to scatter them.

“We’ve had some ashes scattered with what’s called a flotation cushion,” he said. “If it’s a fisherman’s favourite lake or something, the ashes go into this special dissolvable cushion, which floats out onto the lake before it gradually sinks.

“We’ve had others put ashes into a glass paperweight, and then jewellery is very popular. Small pieces are kept for necklaces and things like that,” he said, adding that ashes are sometimes split up and scattered in a number of places.

Irish Association of Funeral Directors spokesman Colm Kieran said cremations make up about 15-30 per cent of funerals in urban areas, while this figure rises to 40-50 per cent in the more expensive parts of Co Dublin. In country areas, however, the number falls to 10-15 per cent.

“What that is driven by is cost,” he said. “With the cost of burial plots in urban areas, it’s much more cost-effective for people to go down the route of cremation. People also have to deal with the costs of grave-digging and a headstone, which are considerable.”

Mr Kieran said there were many practices for the disposal of ashes. “It might be a place where someone met their partner. In some cases, the ashes are divided up and given to different family members with keepsake jewellery.”

Frank Murphy, manager of the Island Crematorium in Co Cork, said about 60 per cent of people buy wooden caskets, “which would suggest burial”. He added: “Some people keep them at home until their partner dies and then the two are buried together.”

Glasnevin Cemetery said 85 per cent of the ashes from its crematorium are privately disposed of, compared with 13 per cent which are located in the Columbarium Walls, while 1-2 per cent choose to avail of the plots in the Garden of Remembrance.

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter