Burial at sea in a ceremony off New Taipei City. (Photo courtesy of New Taipei City Government)
New Vatican cremation guidelines may bring the church in Taiwan into a dilemma as "eco-friendly natural burials" gain popularity through active promotion by the government.
With burial plots on the island in short supply, Taiwan has been encouraging people to cremate their deceased and scatter their ashes in nature. But the Vatican would rather Catholics are buried.
"To avoid any form of pantheistic, naturalistic or nihilistic misunderstanding, it is not permitted to scatter ashes in the air, on earth, in water or in any other way, or to convert the cremated ashes into any form of commemorative item," said the Vatican document, Ad resurgendum cum Christo (To Rise with Christ), released on Oct. 25.
The church asserts that the bodies of the deceased be treated with respect and laid to rest in a place that is consecrated. The church continues to prefer burial in the ground, accepts cremation as an option, but forbids the scattering of ashes and the growing practice of keeping cremated remains at home.
In Taiwan, the government is currently promoting several kinds of natural burial, advocating for people to scatter the remains of their loved ones among trees, flowers or out at sea. As of May this year, 29 locations inside public cemeteries and two outside have been allocated as sites for "eco-friendly natural burials," serving more than 20,000 people, the Ministry of Interior told ucanews.com."They have replaced the dark, cold, stony tombs with the beautiful natural landscape. It not only maintains the cycle of ecology but also reduces the cost of unnecessary and elaborate rituals and formalities," the ministry said.
Off the coast of Taipei, 121 urns were emptied into the sea this year so far. It is estimated that there will be 10 more sea burials by the end of the year.
Since the government began their campaign in 2002 to reduce the number of burials on the island, more than 16,000 people have adopted alternative funerals methods, such as tree burials or flower burials, according to local media.
The total number of alternate burials for 2016 is expected to be 25 percent more than last year, a record high since the campaign began.
Father Otfried Chan, secretary general of the bishops' conference in Taiwan, said that the Congregation of the Doctrine and Faith's instructions were based only on doctrine rather than seeing things from a cultural or economic standpoint.
For Catholics, the best choice is burial while cremation is "already a compromise" for highly populous Asian countries, Father Chan said.
"I do not think sea or tree burials are particularly environmentally friendly and they are not in conformity with the faith of the church at all," he said.
The priest added that the Taiwan bishops' conference will discuss the instructions at their next plenary meeting and "probably release a local document to explain the new instructions."
For the Vatican, "burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body." However, the church does not prohibit cremation "unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine."