The Vatican has announced that Catholics may be cremated, but are unable to keep the ashes of loved ones in urns at home. The new guidelines, produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, stipulate that cremated remains (cremains to the word-play lovers among us) should be kept in a “sacred place,” most usually a cemetery. The scattering of ashes at sea, in woodland groves, or in volcanoes is now strictly prohibited. Cremation is not anti-Christian, and funerary rites are not to be withheld from those who are cremated, but in general burial is much to be preferred.
This comes as news to the billions of Catholics who thought that cremation was acceptable because the Vatican explicitly said as much in 1963. If cremation was already permissible, why have they issued guidelines?
Skeptics note that this is really all about the money. The funeral industry is big business, and perhaps the Vatican wants a greater slice of the internment pie. Certainly, being buried intact on sacred ground is more expensive than being deposited in ashy form on the mantelpiece. And selling mini-burials for cremains could both be a source of revenue and offer an incentive for relatives with spotty attendance records to return to church. This does, however, seem to be an unfair characterization both of Catholic priests, who officiate at funerals for nominal fees, and of organizations like the St. Joseph of Arimathea Society Pallbearer Ministry, in which volunteers participate in the funerals of the poor free of charge.
Ostensibly the Vatican is reacting to recent innovations in the necropolis industry. Cremains in particular have become a site of commercialization. If your childhood dream was to be an astronaut, well, good news: you can have your remains launched into space. If your grieving loved ones want to keep you close to them, they can have your ashes tattooed onto their bodies or transformed into “diamonds.”
But this is not only about a discomfort with new-fangled burial rites; it is also about a sense of religious purity and the formation of Catholic identity. The guidelines explicitly associate cremation with “pagan” religious practices: “When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith,” the guidelines rule, “a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law." There is no room for religious syncretism in the burial of the dead.
The denunciation of cremation as a “pagan” practice is actually nothing new. As early as the eighth century cremation was associated with paganism, and the emperor Charlemagne later insisted that German converts to Christianity abandon their funerary pyres. And when cremation was reintroduced in the 18th and 19th century, it was conceived of as a recapturing of the classical spirit. The eccentric Prussian monarch Frederick the Great is rumored to have requested to be “burned in the Roman fashion.” And Jacob Grimm, of fairytales fame, argued to the Berlin academy in 1849 that the introduction of cremation in pre-classical antiquity had actually represented an advance in culture. It was aesthetically pleasing, practical, and, he added, a welcome departure from Christianized burial.
Cremation, as a self-conscious alternative to Christian burial, quickly caught on among Jacobin revolutionaries in France and scientists in Italy. As Thomas Laqueur has written, there were arguments to be made about the ecological and public health benefits of cremation as well as the potentially positive moral influence of grandfather’s ashes in the household, but the real motivation for the promulgation of cremation was to strike a blow against Christianity. So, when the Vatican says that cremation is “pagan” they are not being paranoid; cremation advocates have been touting the practice’s classical roots for over two centuries.
The Vatican’s statement also refers to the foundational Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. The guidelines tie burial to belief that on the day of judgment trumpets will sound and the dead will rise from the grave: "By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity.”
Linking burial rituals to religious identity and beliefs about the afterlife is also well established. The ancient Greeks believed that unless earth was placed on the body of the deceased their shade (something analogous to their ghost) would wander the earth for a hundred years. And if coins were not placed on the person’s eyes, they would have a tough time paying Charon the ferryman to take them across the river Styx to Hades. This is to say nothing of the complex ancient Egyptian burials rituals and rites that mapped onto ancient physics and astronomy, social status, and morality. By and large the afterlife is the endgame of religious practice and that means the funerary rites can be theologically, as well as emotionally, fraught.
For early Christians the resurrection of the dead might have been threatened by the experience of martyrdom. Not only were the bodies of martyrs dismembered and eaten by wild animals, they were frequently burned, and (according to Christians) the Romans delighted in throwing corpses into rivers and secreting away remains so that Christians could not bury their dead. The response to this, from Christian theologians, was to point out that the God who created the universe could surely reassemble a dismembered body. It was an idea they had absorbed from the martyrs of the Maccabean revolt.
What all of this shows is that, historically speaking, both the theology and practice of burial have responded to changing political and social climates. The same can be said of Tuesday’s announcement. One of the distinctive notes in the new guidelines is the way that burial is connected to the idea that “the human body [is] an integral part…[of] identity.” This we all know to be true. Even if you’re a hermetic academic who lives a “life of the mind,” you still sit and read in your body. Our experience of the world and, thus, our identities are connected to our bodies.
But when it comes to the immortality business there is a new group of players on the scene who are considerably more interested in your mind and your neural pathways than they are your body. Tech giants like Peter Thiel, Larry Page, and Larry Ellison have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into companies and foundations that fight aging and death. Page has a demonstrated interest in “singularity,” the idea popularized by Ray Kurzweil, that at some juncture in the future we will reach a tipping point at which technology will fundamentally alter our existence. One stated goal of these tech-age quests for the holy grail is to map our neural pathways (our consciousness, if you will), upload it to whatever technology we have at the time, and project that consciousness into space. A curious vision of immortality, in as much as it resembles the fate of Zod in Superman II.
Projects that fight death are inherently atheistic in the sense that they eliminate the possibility of a religious afterlife. But they also do something else: they assume that the only thing that makes you you is your brain. (This is why cryonics labs offer the cut-price option of preserving only your brain.) This Cartesian idea (“I think therefore I am”) is something that both biologists and critical theorists have been pushing back against for the past fifty years. In fact, one of the reasons that people argue that bodily attributes like gender, race, and ability matter politically is because they matter experientially.
It is in part in response to these new aspirations of immortality that the Vatican is issuing its guidelines: preserving your neural pathways is no substitute for an eternity with God. But equally as significant is their observation that we are not just our disembodied minds. And whatever you think about heaven and hell, burial and cremation, on that second point the Catholic Church is really on to something.