Reuse of Old Graves

Date: April 30, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Question: In this country, there have been several proposals to modify the law regarding the reuse of old graves. Is there any Catholic teaching on reusing graves in which Catholics are buried on which we should base any considerations or representations to civil authorities? -- P.B., Twickenham, United Kingdom

Answer: An answer to this question depends in large measure on local conditions and burial traditions. Canon law, as far as I have been able to ascertain, has no fundamental objections to reusing graves, provided that respect to the deceased is shown.

One way to discover a Catholic position is to see how the laws are framed in traditionally Catholic countries. Although the Church would not necessarily have been consulted about these laws, they would usually respect Catholic sensibilities. If the Church does not formally object to a particular civil law, then it can be said that it does not contradict Catholic doctrine or practice.

An example from Ireland, where burial in the ground is more common, we find the following by law in one county:

“No grave shall be re-opened within 14 years after the burial of a person over 12 years of age, or within 8 years after a person under 12 years of age, unless to bury a member of the same family, in which case a layer of earth not less than 300mm shall be left undisturbed above the previous coffin. If on re-opening any grave the soil is offensive, such soil shall not be disturbed. In no case shall human remains be disturbed.”

In Italy, it is more common to bury in niches or crypts. Cemeteries are usually publicly owned and in designated areas at a certain minimum distance from inhabited dwellings. Italian cemeteries are usually very well cared for by municipalities. Although they are public, provision is frequently made for different religions, especially in the larger cities. Since Catholicism is the majority religion, cemeteries usually have a chapel for funeral rites and Catholic graves are blessed before use.

With respect to the reuse of tombs, the common practice is that after 40 years for a niche or 10 years after burial in the ground, bodies are exhumed and placed in smaller ossuaries. The family may extend the period of burial for a further 20 years.

After this period there is a second burial in a new place according to the wishes of the family. If there is no family, or if the family so disposes, the cemetery has a common ossuary where remains are conserved perpetually. These, although not open to the public, are conserved and duly registered in such a way as to allow for individual burial at any moment.

This is the overall practice in Italy, especially in larger cities. There are many varieties as there is also the possibility of family tombs and crypts. Even in this latter case, it is possible to relocate graves in smaller loculi so as to make space for other family members.

Rome’s monumental Verano cemetery, although run by the city, is the final resting place for many members of religious congregations. Even the Vatican has a large crypt in which some curial cardinals and bishops are interred, especially those with no surviving family members.

In the five-story Jesuit crypt, the remains are placed in niches for the 40-year period and then are transferred to smaller niches with several ossuaries. Therefore, since the members of the venerable Society of Jesus do not seem to object to reusing graves, I think it is a permissible practice for Catholics, provided that there is respect toward the remains of all the deceased.

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