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Ask Fr. Francis: Burial at sea, what does the Church teach?

The following is an excerpt from askfrfrancis.orgFr. Francis Ching, CC answers tough questions about the Catholic faith.


After struggling with bone cancer for over 10 years, God brought my elder sister back home last Saturday. Before she passed, she expressed that she preferred to have a burial at sea. What is the teaching and attitude of the Catholic Church towards this issue?

Fr. Francis' answer:

It is clear that OCF teaches that body burial remains the preferred and more dignified way of respecting the dead. Sea burial typically is reserved for death at sea and when it is not feasible for the body to be kept onboard until at port. The ritual does allow for the cremated remains or the body to be buried at sea, but preferably only when body burial is not feasible. For example, when land is not available or too costly, or if it would cause serious conflict in the family, etc.

Notice that OCF teaches against the practice of keeping the cremated remains at home. This is not the same as the ancient Chinese practice of keeping all the remains in the memorial hall of the clan’s village, which essentially serves as a mausoleum since it is a somewhat permanent place of rest. However, our homes today are not permanent residence. The care and respect we pay to our loved ones are often not carried on to the next generations, and they would not want to have the responsibility of looking after the ashes. It is indeed better for the family members who know and love the person to properly put the remains to a permanent place of rest, than to leave it to those who do not know the person to be responsible for it.

Lastly, every baptized person is baptized to be a saint. As a result, the person’s remains should be treated with the reverence of a saint’s relics. They are not simply a body that is no more, but has through a lifetime of sanctification been transformed, in part or in whole, into an efficacious channel of God’s grace, which often remains to be efficacious even after death. This is the reason why the relics of the known saints have the power to heal and exorcize. If we believe and hope our loved ones to be passing onto heaven, we must also believe that their remains may possess such powers, and thus must be treated with the utmost dignity and reverence.

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