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.