Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italian English


Dear Father Angelo,

How are you? Allow me to bother you again with a question. I know how busy you are, and therefore feel free to decide whether you have time to answer me. Thank you for your kindness anyway.

My question is whether the Church recommends interment (underground) or burial in a niche. There are various publications, either printed or on the internet, that discuss the subject of burial vs cremation, but I have not been able to find much about the comparison, from a Christian perspective, between different types of burials.

I think that there are various arguments in favor of putting interment or burial in a niche on the same level.

1. Christ himself was entombed, not buried, and therefore it is not clear why underground burial should be preferred.

2. Canon 1176, paragraph 3, is in contrast with the “pia consuetudo defunctorum corpora sepeliendi” with reference to cremation, for which burial should reasonably be understood in the sense of underground burial or entombment.

3. There is a millenary tradition of entombment, alongside the burial, from burial in the walls of churches to family tombs, to the catacombs themselves (which were underground, but inside them the dead were arranged in niches).

The reason for my doubt derives from certain statements:

1. In the instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo, on the burial of the dead (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2016), we read, in paragraph 3, that inhumation (not, generically, burial) is “the most suitable form for expressing faith and hope in bodily resurrection”.

2. The Piam et constantem instruction on cremation of 1963 indicated that the Church has always promoted “the burial of corpses”.

3. In commenting on canon 1176 cited above, the concept is sometimes expressed that “the pious Christian tradition, which dates back to the apostolic times itself”, is that “of the burial of the mortal remains of the faithful, entrusting them to the earth, waiting for the final resurrection “. (CHIAPPETTA, The Code of Canon Law. Juridical-pastoral commentary, 2nd edition, 1996, vol. 2, p. 443).

Perhaps, based on their text and context, these statements can be explained without necessarily going so far as to argue that inhumation is preferable to entombment. In any case, if you have time and the topic interests you, please let me know when you’ll have the chance. I would not want that, with … all my (supposed) knowledge of theology and canon law (and above all the arrogance that goes along with them), I would end up buying a niche for my wife and me, when instead we had to be buried! (I spare you the whole question of Catholic cemeteries here in America where Catholics are buried, according to their preferences, in interconfessional cemeteries).

Thanks again for your kindness and, well in advance, best wishes for the feast of Saint Dominic! (He too, as far as I know, was never buried, but was initially entombed in the small church of San Nicolo’ delle Vigne, which has now disappeared).

Answer from the priest

Dear friend,

1. When in the disciplinary documents of the Church there is talk of burial, it alludes to interment, that is to say, under the ground.

This is because the burial of ordinary people has always been done underground among Christians. Only the rich could own a niche, or a cell, also called a tomb.

2. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks in general of burial: “The bodies of the departed must be treated with love and respect, with charity in faith and in the hope of the resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy”(CCC 2300).

The Code of Canon Law never uses the term burial even in Latin, but speaks generically of interment, meaning both burial under the ground as well as in a niche.

3. Even the liturgy of the Church, when it entrusts the bodies of the deceased to the earth, with this expression means not only the burial under the ground but also the deposition in a niche.

4. From the very beginning, the bodies of Christians, in opposition to the pagan rite that implied cremation, were brought to a place specifically called a cemetery, from the Greek Koimeterion, which means dormitory.

The custody of the body, underground or in the niche, clearly manifested the expectation of the resurrection.

4. However, what you have noticed is true: the Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Ad resurgendum cum Christo of 25 August 2016, on the burial of the dead, in n. 3 says: “Following the ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased are buried in the cemetery or other sacred place. In remembrance of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, a mystery in the light of which the Christian meaning of death is manifested, inhumation is above all the most suitable form to express faith and hope in the bodily resurrection”.

5. But it is evident here that precisely because of the approach to Christ, by burial we mean any form of burial.

In fact, Christ was not buried on the ground, but in the tomb carved into the rock that Joseph of Arimathea had initially made for himself: “and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock. Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed” (Mt 27,59-60).

The high priests after having sentenced Jesus to the most infamous death, the crucifixion, wanted him to have also the most infamous burial, that of being thrown directly into the common grave. In this case it would have been more difficult to say that he had risen from the dead.

6. But what they wanted never happened because Joseph of Arimathea intervened, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death” (Is 53: 9). 

Giuseppe Girotti comments: “The most obvious meaning of these words seems to be: they had assigned him to be buried with the wicked, but after death he was placed with the rich”.

7. St. Dominic was not placed in a niche, but was really buried, put under the ground.

Blessed Giordano, his first successor, in recalling the exhumation of the body carried out on the night between 23 and 24 May 1233 while approaching the day of canonization, writes: “There was underneath, buried in the earth, that wooden box in which the venerable Pope Gregory, then bishop of Ostia, had buried the sacred body”.

8. So everyone can do as he sees fit.

Paul VI wanted to be buried underground, not a sarcophagus as is generally done for Popes. 

I thank you for your closeness with the Holy Father Dominic.

I wish you well, I remind you to the Lord and I bless you.

Father Angelo