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Kerala Church allows cremation of pandemic victims

Syro-Malabar Church does not prohibit cremation unless it is chosen to challenge Christian doctrines

Kerala Church allows cremation of pandemic victims

A traditional cremation takes place near the banks of the Ganges River in India's Uttar Pradesh state. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Breaking its centuries-old tradition, the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church has allowed cremation of Catholics who die of Covid-19 at any place of convenience, including private land.

Although cremation is allowed in the Catholic Church, the move has surprised many members of a church that claims the apostolic tradition of St. Thomas. In its long history, it has so far not allowed cremation, seen as a Hindu practice in its base in Kerala state in southern India.

"Catholics who die of Covid-19 can be cremated, and the ashes will have to be buried in the respective parish cemeteries," said a June 13 circular by Archbishop Andrews Thazhath of Trichur Archdiocese.

The move comes as burials have become nearly impossible in most parish cemeteries following the government's Covid-19 protocols.

Shortage of space has forced many church cemeteries to use wall-mounted vaults, while the government wants bodies to be buried at a minimum depth of 10 feet.

Most cemeteries have tombs close to each other, so bodies are buried only six feet deep. "It is practically impossible to bring in earth movers to dig graves of 10 feet deep without disturbing these tombs," a church official said.

Archbishop Thazhath in his circular said bodies of Covid-19 victims could also be buried on parish land outside cemeteries. If that is not possible, burial can be permitted on private land.

However, the remains of those buried outside cemeteries should be moved to their parish cemeteries after two years. Those cremating bodies should also bury the ashes in the parish cemetery, it added.

"Catechism of the Catholic Church allows cremation if it does not challenge the premise of the resurrection of the body," the archbishop said.

Bishop Pauly Kannookadan of Irinjalakuda Diocese in neighboring Truchur said the Church encourages burial but under "emergencies like a global pandemic" cremation can be permitted as it is "not against the teachings of the Church."

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"There was no discussion about it on the Syro-Malabar Synod or among other bishops as it is not a new thing to be introduced," he said, explaining that cremation is an already accepted form of body disposal.

Quoting from the Catholic Church's Catechism, he said that "the Church permits cremation provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body."

Similarly, canon law of Latin-rite Catholics also allows cremation. Canon law (1176) says "the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen contrary to Christian doctrines," Bishop Kannookadan explained.

Father Antony Thalachelloor, spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Synod, agreed that their Church "strictly practiced burial" and the cremation move is a first in their Church "but nothing new in the Catholic Church."

"It is true some of our people might find it something very odd. But this is not going to be a regular practice. It ensures the safety and security of people at a critical time," he told UCA News on June 17.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai had allowed cremation of Covid-19 victims in his Latin-rite archdiocese two months ago. 

Kerala has recorded 2,622 positive Covid-19 cases and 20 deaths, but cases are surging across India with more 367,000 cases and some 12,000 deaths as of June 18.

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