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No clean outcome for Church in ashes row

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 27/10/2016

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

The Vatican has certainly posed a dilemma for many Catholics through its decree on how to treat the ashes of someone who has been cremated.

While cremation is still very much the minority option for Catholics - or indeed all mainstream churches in the province - it has become more popular in recent years due to the dwindling space in graveyards and the relative expense of buying a burial plot.

The Catholic Church allows cremation, although its preferred option is that the deceased should be buried in the traditional manner. However, its new ruling, authorised by Pope Francis, says that anyone who wishes to dispose of a loved one's ashes by scattering them at a place of significance or keeping them in an urn at home or, more exotically, having them turned into jewellery, should be denied a Christian funeral.

No doubt there are sound theological reasons for insisting that Catholics who have been cremated should be buried in consecrated ground. That is also the logical reasoning since very few people would even consider burying a loved one who had not been cremated anywhere but in a cemetery.

However, the cold reasoning of the Church could come into conflict with the feelings that some people may have in wishing to retain some link with a departed loved one. They may well take comfort from keeping the ashes of a dead spouse or child, for example, in their home and feel that is as respectful as a traditional burial.

What is certain is that this decree is likely to become quite a debating point among the faithful as cremations become more common in years to come. Currently, Northern Ireland has only one crematorium, at Roselawn on the outskirts of Belfast, but another is planned for the northern outskirts.

As our report today reveals, there can be a wide divergence of views - from those who think the Church should steer away from the issue to those who think that it is right to highlight the sanctity of funerals.

Critics of the decree may point out that it is not so many years ago that unbaptised babies were not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground, although that rule has been rescinded in more recent times. That shows that the church is a living body which evolves, albeit it slowly, over time to keep pace with the wishes of its adherents. It has rules, but not all are set in stone.

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