St. Louis, Mo., Mar 23, 2023 / 14:50 pm (CNA).
The U.S. bishops’ doctrine committee on Thursday issued a statement reiterating the Church’s preference for burial of the deceased and stating that newer methods — namely alkaline hydrolysis and human composting — do not show respect for the human body.
“In recent years, newer methods and technologies for disposition of the bodies of the deceased have been developed and presented as alternatives to both traditional burial and cremation. A number of these newer methods and technologies pose serious problems in that they fail to manifest the respect for last remains that Catholic faith requires,” the bishops wrote March 23.
“Unfortunately, the two most prominent newer methods for disposition of bodily remains that are proposed as alternatives to burial and cremation, alkaline hydrolysis and human composting, fail to meet this criterion.”
The Catholic Church teaches that one day, at the final resurrection, the souls of the dead will be reunited with their bodies. Catholics are “obliged to respect our bodily existence throughout our lives and to respect the bodies of the deceased when their earthly lives have come to an end. The way that we treat the bodies of our beloved dead must always bear witness to our faith in and our hope for what God has promised us,” the bishops wrote.
Noting the upcoming celebration of Easter, when Christians celebrate Christ’s bodily resurrection, the bishops reiterated that “the Church has always taught that we must respect the bodies of the deceased.” Thus, a traditional burial is “considered by the Church to be the most appropriate way of manifesting reverence and respect for the body of the deceased because it ‘honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit,’ and clearly expresses our faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.”
The process of human composting — also known as natural organic reduction — is a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S. and has been legalized in a handful of states, most recently California. When a body is composted, it is placed in a reusable container where microbes and bacteria decompose it into soil over the course of 30-45 days. Alkaline hydrolysis is a process whereby a human body is broken down in a tank of chemicals at high pressure and heat, resulting in a few bone fragments and a large quantity of wastewater.
Although the practices of cremation, human composting, and alkaline hydrolysis all involve the acceleration of the decomposition of the body, the latter two do not allow for all parts of the body to be “gathered together and reserved for disposition,” the bishops noted.
“There is nothing distinguishably left of the body to be placed in a casket or an urn and laid to rest in a sacred place where Christian faithful can visit for prayer and remembrance,” the bishops said.
The Catholic Church as a whole does not have an official teaching on the composting of human bodies but has weighed in many times over the years on the practice of cremation. While strongly discouraged, cremation can be permissible under certain restrictions; notably, the remains are not to be scattered and must be kept in a sacred place out of reverence for the Church’s teaching on the eventual resurrection of the body.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s October 2016 instruction Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo states that while cremation “is not prohibited,” the Church “continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased.”
In that same document, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified that a person’s ashes are not to be scattered nor kept in the home or preserved in mementos or jewelry but instead must be “laid to rest in a sacred place,” such as in a cemetery or church. As the document explains, “by burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity.”
California legalized the practice of human composting in 2022, and it is set to become available in the state by 2027. Ahead of the legalization, the California Catholic Conference said the use of a body composting method originally developed for farm animals creates an “unfortunate spiritual, emotional, and psychological distancing from the deceased.” In addition, executive director Kathleen Domingo said, the process “reduces the human body to simply a disposable commodity.”
Bishops in states such as Texas, Missouri, and New York have expressed opposition in recent years to the legalization of alkaline hydrolysis.
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Why does the Church only endorse burial? Consider the valuable land that is taken up with this practice, not to mention corpse degregation into water systems. If you believe that God created the Heavens and the Earth, then surely he can’t have too many problems reassembling your mortal remains from ashes or compost!