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Can Ashes Be Scattered?

Q: I understand the Church’s regulations on cremation. In view of the events of last summer, what are the Church’s regulations on the final disposition of the deceased person’s ashes? May they be cast to the winds at sea?

A: Last summer’s funeral of John F. Kennedy, Jr., Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lauren Bessette led to some initial, inaccurate reports. Reporters on ships at a distance incorrectly assumed that the ashes had been scattered. In fact, containers holding the ashes were dropped overboard.

The Church expects entombment of the ashes in a conventional grave, a mausoleum or a columbarium(cemetery niche for the container). The Order of Christian Funerals approved for the dioceses of the United States by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Holy See contains an alternate prayer for cremated remains.

That prayer says, “My friends, as we prepare to bury (entomb) the ashes of our brother (sister)….” Later it continues, “Comfort us today with the words of your promise as we return the ashes of our brother (sister) to the earth.”

The Guidelines for Christian Burial in the Catholic Church, prepared by the Liturgy Advisory Committee of the National Catholic Cemetery Conference, state, “Unless otherwise directed by the diocesan bishop, the cremated remains should never be scattered or disposed of in any manner other than a dignified interment or entombment.”

Burial at sea is permitted for a body or a person’s ashes. Federal law prohibits such burials less than three nautical miles from land. Regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency specify that “cremated remains shall be buried in or on ocean waters.”

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