The ashes of atheists

I’ve found myself in an odd situation. Last fall my uncle passed away. He meant a lot to me. He and my aunt pretty much saved my life. They took me in after my parents divorce and I lived with them through college. In spite of his solid Methodist upbringing and my aunt’s solid Anglican upbringing they are both confessed atheists. Never-the-less, they lived a life of Christian values. It was with them that I learned what a traditional marriage looks like.

It was tough when my uncle passed away, not so much because he was gone, but because there was no memorial service and no opportunity to mourn his passing with the family. All those Catholic things we do weren’t available to me, I had to work this one out all by myself.

To make a long story short, I am now in the possession of some of my uncle’s ashes. I’m not sure why my aunt, an atheist, would want me to have them, nor do I know what she expects me to do or what I should do with them.

On a similar note, a good friend, also an atheist, has passed away recently. He had an inherited degenerative nervous disease and had moved away from town to live in a nursing home closer to his sisters. We got together with a few of his friends to remember him and to share some stories. It was an interesting little group, mostly atheist’s with varying questions and opinions of what was now happening to our friend.

Our friend’s sisters are bringing his ashes back to town. We’re going to get together again and I presume make some sort of accommodations for their distribution.

So, it’s a little bit of an odd spot I’ve found myself in. It was Christian death that brought me into Christian life. It was at my MIL’s funeral mass that I began to realize that something was going on with this Catholic Church. Death is a natural part of the rhythm of the life of the Church, it’s interesting than I’m interfacing with atheists regarding these same matters.

just a suggestion, but maybe you could ask your parish priest for advice about your uncle’s ashes? it is pretty important that they do get buried somewhere at some point


Agreed. Most atheists I know don’t really care what happens to their remains once they die. This is good for the survivors, because it sort of gives them the opportunity to do what makes them feel the most comfortable. If Catholic traditions are what makes someone the most comfortable, then I think it would make sense to consult with a priest. He will be able to give some guidance , I would imagine.

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Likely she is wondering NOW if there is something to all the religious belief.
She probably realizes that you know the proper thing to do, and perhaps it makes her sad to keep them.
I would gently ask if she will permit you to have them interred properly.
If she says no, you can politely decline to keep them. Explain to her that your are bound to bury your dead, according to your beliefs.
She might like to have a place where he will be at rest. Regardless of his personal belief.


Pray for your uncle. May he rest in peace in the glorious presence of God.

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I would bury the ashes in a tomb of some kind and offer a mass for the deceased.


Do you mean his spirit? I am curious what atheists think about such things.

Prayers for him too.

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I agree you should talk to a priest.

I agree with Clare’s advice about asking your aunt if it would be possible for you to have your uncle’s ashes interred somewhere. If she says no, then you would have to explain that as a Catholic, you cannot keep the cremains.
I also agree with Dan Defender that you should have a Mass said for his soul, and say other prayers for his soul as you can manage, such as the Divine Mercy or Rosary.

It is interesting to me that atheists would even think of something “happening” to another atheist after death.

Eternal rest grant unto tad’s uncle, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace.
May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.


Asking a priest seems sensible to me. Personally, I’d bury the ashes under a newly planted tree. Pretending to be an atheist for a minute, if I only believe in the physical world I’d rather my ashes did something slightly useful like help a tree grow.

If your uncle outright hated the church I wouldn’t do a mass as that wouldn’t be what he would want.
I wish your friends and family well during this time, God Bless you in the difficulties you face at this time.


Sounds like they were great people. I am sorry for your loss. I bet the ashes came your way, because your Aunt knowing you are not an atheist, somehow knew you would be the one who would do the right thing. Like interring them somehow.


We treat the ashes with the same respect as we would an intact human body.

Check your local laws WRT burial of human ashes, in my state there is no restriction so one could bury the cremains in the flower garden in front of ones house if buying a cemetery plot or columbarium space were a financial burden.


Just do something respectful. Adding the ashes to the grave of another family member is one option. I would bury them myself, but if you scatter, stand upwind!

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Catholics are not permitted to scatter.

Asking the priest fro advice is good, but he can’t make that call. Only the wife of the deceased can. I agree with PianistClare.
Speak to her gently.
If she refuses burial, then politely give them back to her. No harm.

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Didn’t know that- may I ask why?

Because we treat the ashes with the respect that is proper for human remains. Not to sound crass, but, you would not chop up Cousin Charley’s body and fling bits of him about.

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I’m sorry about your uncle, tad. I gather from your use of the word “some” that his ashes have been divided up between a number of family members?

All you can do in good faith is arrange for them to be interred, as long as your aunt is in agreement. if she isn’t, then she should really take them back from you.

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Thanks for your prayers and your thoughtful replies everyone. I will go talk to my pastor about having a mass said for my friend and my uncle and having my uncle’s cremains interred. As @lsca asked above, I don’t believe I’m in possession of all them. I need to go see my aunt, sooner than later.

BTW “The Ashes of Atheists” sounds like a great title for a novel!

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