The Catholic Church wants all cremated ashes to remain together. Can you explain the relics of our saints?
This question allows us to consider both the recent statement of the Church regarding cremated remains and the proper respect owed to the bodies of the deceased – including the relics of saints.
When it comes to the recent statement on cremated remains, it is of first importance that we restate our belief in the resurrection of the body. God made us as a unity of body and soul. That the soul and body separate at death is a consequence of sin – and not what God intended. Accordingly, God’s plan was (and is) for us to dwell in His presence in our bodies. In the second coming of Christ, all the dead will be raised in the body, with those who have accepted salvation in Jesus Christ being admitted to the fullness of eternal life and those who have rejected Christ to eternal loss.
Given this understanding and belief in the resurrection, the Church has always upheld the importance of respect for the body, even in death. That
cremation has become commonplace and allowed by the Church does not change this understanding – which is why the Church clearly states that
cremation cannot be chosen for any motive that denies the resurrection of the body or undermines right respect for the body. Due to such practices of “scattering” the remains or the division of cremated remains (among other reasons), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) recently issued the Instruction “Regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation,” Ad resurgendum cum Christo, to explicitly state that such remains must always be buried or entombed - that such respect might remain upheld.
While I am not fully aware of the motive of the question regarding relics, my hunch is that it is asked out of concern that the recent statement on cremated
remains is contradictory to the centuries-old practice of venerating first-class relics (that is, relics that are usually the fragments of bones from the bodies of saints). Let me answer this concern in two ways: first by considering the difference between venerated relics and the treatment of cremated remains and secondly by way of the recent instruction on burial of the deceased.
The key difference between the practice/reality of veneration of relics and the recent appearance of the separation of cremated remains is that of the public
purpose of relics (as opposed to private custody of cremated remains, even if by multiple persons). The veneration of relics is motivated by faith in Christ: it is meant to aid the faithful in devotion to saints and in their seeking to live the Christian life more faithfully. Any and all authentic first-class relics (bones) are meant for public
veneration. In fact, there are stringent requirements that must be met for the acquiring of such relics – including documentation from a bishop stating that such a relic will be used for public veneration. Likewise, any relics of this nature are only given with proper documentation of their authenticity by those who have original
custody to give them. The public veneration of relics versus private retaining of a person’s remains truly sets up the second answer, as given by the recent CDF
In the CDF’s Instruction, a beautiful point is made how the burial of the person gives all of us an opportunity to receive right respect, allowing for public veneration (whether bodily or after cremation). In other words, while it may seem that the separating of saints’ bodies into separate relics contradicts the statement on remains, it is the opposite point that is made: that the keeping of all the remains together in proper burial provides right opportunity for public acknowledgement of each person, that more people might have access to be in the presence of the one who is buried. If subsequent to burial it were the case that our own loved one’s lives were to be
considered for sainthood, the Church has proper protocol for exhuming the body. However, it should be noted that in many (if not most) of these instances, the bodies of saints are not divided into relics, but remained buried/entombed in one place so that many can come to that burial place and be near to them. Thus, there truly is no contradiction between devotion of relics and the necessity of burying cremated remains intact – as both are meant for the good of public veneration and as a proper way for many to be near to those who have died.