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“Ask a Priest: What If Mom Wants Her Ashes Scattered?”
Q: I am wandering about what to do when my mother passes, with respect to her remains. My mother is a devout Catholic, or rather has been all her life until she developed dementia. Her wish when she passes is to be cremated and have her ashes placed over her mother’s grave in Ireland and her dearest sister’s grave in Canada. My father recently passed, and I was advised that I had to have his remains interned or he could not receive the last blessing and furthermore that Catholics don’t believe in the scattering of ashes. I really want to honor my mother’s wishes while respecting her faith as a Catholic, but as you can see, the two are in conflict. I know that it wasn’t long ago that cremation was not condoned by the Church, so I am a little reluctant to deny my mother’s wishes based on a condition that may very well change. As you can appreciate, my mother cannot engage in a conversation about this. Your thoughts on this will be very much appreciated. – C.T.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: I’m sorry to hear about your mom’s dementia. It must be heartbreaking to see her in decline.
You mention that your mom has been a devout Catholic. My guess is that as a devout Catholic she would want to be faithful to what the Church teaches. In her present state of mind, she simply might not understand all the implications of what she is asking.
The Church allows cremation, but not if it reflects a disbelief in the resurrection of the body. That might not be the problem in this case.
The Church stipulates that ashes must be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. They cannot, as you mentioned, be scattered. We need to show respect for the remains, just as we would for the body of a deceased loved one.
Moreover, when someone’s ashes are scattered, the loved ones who survive have no specific place to visit (no specific gravesite) to pay their respects, remember their deceased loved ones, and honor them.
To honor your mother’s desire, you could promise to go and lay a wreath on the graves of her mother and sister, or offer to have Masses said for them, or any number of other creative alternatives that could achieve the desire of your mother without contradicting the Church’s wise teaching about our earthly remains.
For further reading you could look at postings, one by the Holy See, one by the U.S. bishops’ conference.
Coming back to the point of your mom’s devoutness: It might be good to reassure her (as best she could understand) that she can show her devoutness by obeying the Church’s norms on cremation.
In any case, a Catholic couldn’t licitly cooperate in the scattering of ashes, no matter what a loved one’s wishes are.
It might be good to intensify your prayer for your mom. This is where you show the true love of a daughter. Count on my prayers.
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I find this really odd as in Europe it is very common for people to take Ashes of people who have been cremated to Lourdes and scatter them on River Garve. I went with my parish priest (a highly respected Canon) and we scattered the ashes of a parishioner who had made an annual pilgrimage to Lourdes.