What does the Church say we can and can't do with the body after death?

When my husband passed away a few years ago, we had decided that we would donate our bodies to the local university health science center, and i stipulated that his ashes be buried not scattered, as well as mine are to be when the time comes. We were/are unable to afford a funeral, or mauseleum (sp?). I looked info up on the internet and when his death came sooner than we realized it would, i had to scramble for information. From what i found out, we could be buried at the health/science center after our bodies are used for science. Did I do right by my husband? I am very worried about this especially in light of the recent news from the Vatican about cremations. Please help me. thank you.

It was unclear from your question whether you were asking about the Church’s teaching on cremation or donating the body to science after death. As such, I will provide the Church’s teaching on both.

With regard to cremation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith recently published a document addressing this issue with clarity. Although the Church highly encourages ordinary burial, it does permit cremation:

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. Thus cremation, in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body (Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation, sec.4)

It is important to note, however, that the remains of the deceased must be kept in a sacred place and not in a domestic residence. The CDF document states,

When, for legitimate motives, cremation of the body has been chosen, the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority (sec.5).

…the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted. Only in grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature, may the Ordinary, in agreement with the Episcopal Conference or the Synod of Bishops of the Oriental Churches, concede permission for the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence. Nonetheless, the ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained regarding the circumstances of such a conservation (sec. 6).

With regard to whether you can donate your husband’s body to science after his death, the answer is yes. The two quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church below suffice for a clear answer:

CCC 2296: Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as a expression of generous solidarity. It is not morally acceptable if the donor or his proxy has not given explicit consent. Moreover, it is not morally admissible to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.

CCC 2301: Autopsies can be morally permitted for legal inquests or scientific research. The free gift of organs after death is legitimate and can be meritorious.

Concerning the remains of the body after organ donation or medical research, the normal rules of proper burial would apply (e.g., proper respect, sacred place, etc).

I hope that is helpful.

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