A publication of Sacred Heart University
Happy Birthday, Pope Francis
A Paradigm Shift for Theology?

New Possibilities Rising from the Ashes

The release of Fiducia supplicans and the resulting lively discussions about what the declaration means, especially for same-sex couples, was the topic front of mind for many Catholics in the days leading up to Christmas. It certainly drew attention away from the guidelines the Vatican offered less than two weeks earlier on the handling of cremated remains and the permissibility of keeping a small portion of a deceased loved one’s ashes. The two sets of messages feel connected, though, in that they seem to reflect an effort on the part of the Church to find pastoral compromises when faced with the reality of people’s lives. 

The key takeaway on cremation is that, while the scattering of ashes or placing them in items such as jewelry remains forbidden, Rome now says a small portion may be stored in “a place of significance” instead of a cemetery. This acknowledges that for many families – including mine – having ashes at home can help them come to terms with the reality of death and encourage prayer and reflection on the meaning of life and what lies ahead. Many good, faithful Catholics have been keeping ashes reverently at home for some time. Rome’s clarification acknowledges that reality and removes stigma or judgment on well-meaning people. 

 As with so many issues, from artificial birth control to the frequency of attending confession, for example, this message tells us there are faithful Catholics for whom certain long-standing traditions can be rethought or reworked. Sometimes we forget that a well-formed conscience not only includes but extends far beyond reproductive and sexual matters. 

The Vatican’s update on the placement of ashes made my pastoral side feel just a tad smug. When my husband died a few days before the pandemic lockdown began, our family was free to operate outside of Catholic practice because Mike was a non-observant Jew. In conversations I had with our four adult children, it became clear that cremation was the most appropriate choice for us, with Mike’s urn remaining in our home. 

While Rome’s clarification did not apply to the decisions we made, it still left me hopeful that my Church is beginning to be more clearly supportive and understanding of a practice many Catholics embrace. As with same-sex couples receiving blessings, I am hopeful that these new efforts to work with people’s deeply held emotions and needs spread to other aspects of Church life as well.  

One of the realities of what some still call a “mixed marriage” is a desire to respect and learn about what is acceptable and appropriate for the spouse’s tradition. I checked with theologian friends who are knowledgeable on the subject and who knew our family dynamic, and they noted that while much of Judaism still rejects cremation, its use is growing in some of the more liberal Jewish movements. Given Mike’s lack of engagement with his faith, I was comfortable we were making an appropriate decision. 

And so, in good conscience, we opted for cremation and brought Mike’s urn home, placing it on the living room piano, in the heart of our family space. There simply was no space more sacred to him, or more appropriate to the rest of us. 

Having his ashes with us means so much more to us than interring him in a place far from home. My youngest daughter begins each day by blowing the urn a kiss, a custom her sister adopts when back at home. My sons always have a moment of communion when visiting, laying a hand on the urn and offering a few quiet words. These moments are among the most prayerful I’ve seen from my children since they left parochial school; these customs matter to my children and to me. I can also say with confidence that, for a man who eschewed religious practices, they would be sacred to Mike, too. 

The Church’s decision to weigh in on this now suggests an increasing trust in the faithful, an awareness that engaged Catholics have an innate notion of the sacred. With fewer Catholic families opting for funeral masses, it indicates a desire to work with people to achieve a compromise. And in what might be its most significant impact, it demonstrates that concepts like life after death and the raising of the dead might be more nuanced and less literal than many of us had been raised to believe. 

Mike’s ashes are a constant reminder of the gift of life, the sanctity and mystery of it. We are humbled by the presence of his remains in our lives, and we have had endless discussions about what it all means. I realize that our choice was easier because Mike was not a Catholic and that it is a decision that is not for all. I know the solace his ashes have brought us, though, and I am thankful that the Vatican is allowing my fellow Church members to know this solace, too.

The opportunities for similar decisions across Church life present rich and encouraging possibilities. May the momentum continue. 

Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.