Last Tuesday, Catholics around the world received sobering news from the Vatican: No more storing cremated ashes at home, splitting them up among family members or scattering them in the wild.
Instead, the church instructed that ashes should be kept in church or other approved sacred places such as underground in a cemetery or stored in mausoleum crypts. Burials are still preferred, according to new guidelines from the Vatican’s doctrinal office.
While the news could seem surprising to some, it’s too early to tell how this will affect Catholics’ thinking on cremation.
But according to John Fencik, director of Holy Cross Cemetery, which almost exclusively serves Catholics, most Catholics were already following the rules whether they knew it or not.
“We don’t scatter,” he said. “We don’t scatter in gardens. We don’t do ornate jewelry. We don’t scatter in the Spokane River or things like that. People are pretty clearly instructed that it’s something we don’t do.”
Compared with non-Catholics, though, it’s easy to see why the Vatican was worried.
Julie Adams, general manager of Heritage Funeral Home and Crematory, said more than half of their cremations result in people taking the urns home, whether to scatter them or take a moment to decide what to do next.
“The trend is definitely leaning towards scattering, or at least that’s what they indicate to us,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are so many wonderful, beautiful places in the world that are undeveloped or special places for families, and I’ve heard the horror stories: ‘Grandpa loved a certain spot in the woods.’ Lo and behold, in 20 years that spot has become private property, or a Wal-Mart.”
In Washington, and more specifically in Spokane County, cremations are more popular than burials. According to data collected by the Washington state Department of Health, 75 percent of deaths in the county resulted in cremation in 2014, compared to only about 22 percent in a burial.
In 2000, Spokane County’s cremation rate was about 56 percent.
“Washington state has one of the highest cremation rates in the country,” said Barbara Kemmis, executive director of Cremation Association of North America. “In 2014, you were vying with Nevada for the No. 1 spot.”
Seth Hinnen, general manager of Community Cremation and Funeral, said, “It’s a kind of a known fact in the cremation business that cemetery property is going by the wayside. More and more Americans are trying to get away from the more expensive side of the cemetery.”
Like the general population, Catholics, too, have grown to prefer cremation over burial. In 2015, 62 percent of Catholics said they considered cremation as an option for a friend or family member, according to data from the Cremation Association of North America.
Fencik said that while Holy Cross Cemetery has seen fewer Catholic families choosing cremation than the state average of 75 percent, it’s “definitely increasing.” And like non-Catholics, he believes cost plays a large role.
When the Catholic Church started allowing cremations in 1963, it was partly because it was not only cheaper, but less of a hassle than a traditional burial. The Vatican’s sudden clamping down on rules is because the church believes the trend of scattering ashes isn’t keeping with the Catholic faith, which preaches the resurrection of the body.
On Wednesday, Spokane Catholic Bishop Thomas Daly made an announcement via the Catholic Diocese of Spokane’s website commending the Vatican’s announcement, in which he addressed that very point.
“In particular, I am grateful for the ways in which the document addresses erroneous ideas and customs that have arisen regarding the practice of cremation,” the announcement said. “The reality is that burying the body of our loved ones confirms our Christian faith in the resurrection of the body.”
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