Q: Fr. Paul, could you please enlighten us about the use of ossuaries – perhaps first by providing some historical background on their use in Catholic funerals. We have one here in our parish, but I honestly don’t know why we should use it – unless the urn is not presentable. And if an ossuary is used, how? Should the urn be placed in the ossuary in the narthex prior to the entrance procession, and then the ossuary carried in like a casket? I’ve seen the urn being carried in the procession, and then placed in the ossuary which is already situated before the altar; and then the urn is removed from the ossuary at the end of mass for the recessional. But that seems odd to me. What do you think?
A: The word “ossuary” can mean a few different things. Traditionally, and etymologically, it refers to a container for the bones of a deceased human. I remember seeing the one in La Louvesc, France, holding the remains of St. John Francis Regis, the secondary patron of my diocese, where the box-like container seemed designed for the stacking of his bones, not for the placement of his connected skeleton.
What you’re describing seems to be a dignified receptacle for an urn containing the cremated remains of the bones of a deceased person.
It is most appropriate for cases where the receptacle holding the ashes does not have proper dignity. For example, I once celebrated a funeral where the mortician delivered the ashes in a small cardboard box.
Check out the Order of Christian Funerals 427, which calls for “due decorum. The cremated remains of the body are to be placed in a worthy vessel. A small table or stand is to be prepared for them at the place normally occupied by the coffin. The vessel containing the cremated remains may be carried to the place in the Entrance Procession or may be placed on this table or stand sometime before the liturgy begins.”
If the urn is a worthy vessel, there is no need to place it in an ossuary. If the ossuary is used, then it would be used throughout. Either vessel would indeed carried like a coffin. But placing the urn inside an ossuary in front of the altar apart from the processions does not make sense to me.