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It’s time for another episode of Cathedral Square featuring host Fr. Christopher Smith.

We welcome to the program today Mike Wesner and Alma Ochoa. Mike is the Director of Catholic Cemeteries for the Diocese of Orange; and, Alma is the Associate Director of Operations for Cemeteries.

Today’s conversation covers all the goings-on in regards to the Memorial Gardens Cemetery on the Christ Cathedral campus.

Tune in for a fascinating and edifying discussion.




Originally broadcast on 9/12/20


More than 50 years after the Church approved the practice of cremation for Catholic funerals as part of the Vatican II reforms, there is still a level of uncertainty regarding just what is, or is not, permitted about the practice. This, in a day when cremation is becoming more accepted and common throughout the funeral industry as people seek simpler, more economical methods of handling the remains of deceased loved ones than the traditional full-body burial.

New information about the Church’s views became available to Catholics last October. The document “Ad resurgendum cum Christo” (To Rise with Christ) was issued by the office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the portions regarding the disposition of cremated remains have received the most interest and attention. The document specifically states the Church’s prohibitions against the practices of keeping the ashes of a loved one in the home or of scattering the ashes over land or water, and must be properly interred in a cemetery or other appropriate sacred site.

The document states, “Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places. In memory of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, the mystery that illumines the Christian meaning of death, burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.”

The document further states that the act of cremation does not conflict with the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality, or that of the resurrection of the body, saying specifically, ”The Church raises no doctrinal objections to this practice, since cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life.”

So how did the Church arrive at this point where it felt the need to restate its position on a practice that it had already approved more than half a century ago? Michael Wesner, director of cemeteries for the Diocese of Orange, believes that rather than making actual changes, the Church felt the need to communicate its original ideas more clearly and effectively.

“I think what happened is that the Church was not real effective at communicating their position on the various ways of disposition with cremains, such as scattering or keeping the cremains at home, which is not Church teaching,” Wesner says. “The Church’s teachings say to treat cremated remains in the same manner as you do with a body, which is burial in a cemetery, not keeping them at home, not scattering them. Without that clear communication, many out there in the communities were assuming that scattering is okay, or that keeping cremated remains in the home is okay. Even some of the clergy weren’t clear on that.”

Adherence to longstanding traditions by older generations of Catholic clergy and lay people has also led to some of the confusion surrounding the Church’s positions on cremation. “Catholic tradition over the years has been to frown on cremation and really preferred the traditional decorum of the body and the body being buried and the resurrection,” says Wesner. “The Church has become more accepting of cremation, but it wasn’t well acknowledged out there in public. There’s so much misinformation out there from the belief that the Church still prohibits it in the minds of some to the belief that the Church now allows everything, including scattering and keeping them on the mantle at home.”

As to the prohibitions against keeping cremains in the home or scattering them in nature, there are options open to local Catholics who may wish to remedy this situation. “We’ve established what we call a Remembrance Program,” says Wesner. “Let’s say a husband passes away and the wife keeps the cremated remains at home and then [she] passes away and the kids say, ‘What do we do with these?’ They could get abandoned and that’s what we fear. We established the Remembrance Program where our three major Catholic cemeteries, Holy Sepulcher, Ascension and Good Shepherd will accept those cremated remains and inter them at no cost for the sake of honoring the deceased remains and giving them a dignified proper burial at a cemetery.” Established in November 2015, the program has handled approximately 20 such sets of cremated remains since then.

As to remains that have already been scattered, Wesner says that the Diocese offers a cenotaph. “We put their name into an area of the cemetery to remember them, to memorialize.” The cremated remains and body are not there but the placing of the name gives the loved ones of the deceased a place to visit, pray and reflect at a Catholic cemetery.

Wesner and his professional colleagues seem well prepared to deal with a future where Catholic cremations are more common. “In our Catholic cemeteries anywhere between 35 and 39 percent of our burials are cremations,” he says. “The silver lining is that it provides us more area to bury people at cemeteries so it gives the cemetery a longer life because we need less space to bury cremated remains.”



VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Professing belief in the resurrection of the dead and affirming that the human body is an essential part of a person’s identity, the Catholic Church insists that the bodies of the deceased be treated with respect and laid to rest in a consecrated place.

While the Catholic Church continues to prefer burial in the ground, it accepts cremation as an option, but forbids the scattering of ashes and the growing practice of keeping cremated remains at home, said Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“Caring for the bodies of the deceased, the church confirms its faith in the resurrection and separates itself from attitudes and rites that see in death the definitive obliteration of the person, a stage in the process of reincarnation or the fusion of one’s soul with the universe,” the cardinal told reporters Oct. 25.

In 1963, the congregation issued an instruction permitting cremation as long as it was not done as a sign of denial of the basic Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. The permission was incorporated into the Code of Canon Law in 1983 and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches in 1990.

However, Cardinal Muller said, church law had not specified exactly what should be done with “cremains,” and several bishops’ conferences asked the congregation to provide guidance.

The result, approved by Pope Francis after consultation with other Vatican offices and with bishops’ conferences and the Eastern churches’ synods of bishops, is “Ad resurgendum cum Christo” (“To Rise with Christ”), an instruction “regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation.”

Presenting the instruction, Cardinal Muller said, “shortly, in many countries, cremation will be considered the ordinary way” to deal with the dead, including for Catholics.

Cremation, in and of itself, does not constitute a denial of belief in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, the instruction says. Nor does it “prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life.”

However, the Catholic Church wholeheartedly recommends continuing the “pious practice of burying the dead,” Cardinal Muller said. It is considered one of the corporal works of mercy and, mirroring the burial of Christ, it more clearly expresses hope in the resurrection when the person’s body and soul will be reunited.

In addition, he said, when a person is buried in the ground — and, at least to some extent — when the urn of the person’s ashes is placed in a columbarium or tomb, the final resting place is marked with the person’s name, the same name with which the person was baptized and by which the person is called by God.

“Belief in the resurrection of the flesh is fundamental,” he said. “A human cadaver is not trash” and an anonymous burial or scattering of ashes “is not compatible with the Christian faith. The name, the person, the concrete identity of the person” is important because God created each individual and calls each individual to himself.

In fact, when asked if there was any way to rectify the situation when a person’s ashes already had been scattered, Cardinal Muller suggested making a memorial in a church or other appropriate place and including the name of the deceased.

What is more, he said, labeling an urn or tomb in a public place is an expression of belief in the “communion of saints,” the unending unity in Christ of all the baptized, living and dead.

“Other believers have a right to pray at the tomb” and to remember deceased members of the Catholic Church on the feast of All Saints and All Souls.

Keeping ashes at home on the mantel, he said, is a sign not only of love and grief, but also of not understanding how the loved one belonged to the entire community of faith and not just to his or her closest relatives.

“Only in grave and exceptional cases,” the instruction says, local bishops may give permission for ashes to be kept in a private home. Cardinal Muller said it was not up to him, but to local and national bishops’ conferences to determine what those “grave and exceptional” circumstances might be.

Placing the ashes in a sacred place also “prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten or their remains from being shown a lack of respect,” which is more likely to happen as time goes on and the people closest to the deceased also pass way, the instruction said.

Asked specifically about the growing trend in his native Germany of “forest burials,” where people pay to have their ashes in urns interred at the base of a tree in a designated forest burial ground, Cardinal Muller said the German bishops were not thrilled with the idea, but accepted it with the proviso that the tree be marked with the name of the person buried at its base.

In the United States and other countries, a growing number of Catholic cemeteries set aside sections for “green burials” for bodies that have not been embalmed and are placed in simple wooden caskets that eventually will biodegrade along with the body.

“We believe in the resurrection of the body and this must be the principle of our understanding and practice,” Cardinal Muller told Catholic News Service, noting that there is a difference between allowing for the natural decay of the body while protecting the environment and seeing the body of the deceased primarily as fertilizer for plants and trees.