Church and cremation

Question: I was surprised to read that the Catholic Church now permits cremation as an acceptable alternative to traditional burial. What were the reasons for the change in attitude? How does this alternative work in practice? 

— John Clubine, Etobicoke, Ontario

Answer: The Catholic Church’s traditional opposition to cremation derived from a number of concerns. First, that the human body is the temple of the Spirit and, since it has received the sacraments, is itself a holy object and thus must be disposed of reverently. (In premodern times, cremation was often an undignified and gruesome process.) Second, cremation was viewed as a pagan practice. Third, cremation was often associated with the denial of the Resurrection. This was the case espe-cially during the 18th century and after. Fourth, the biblical imagery of the seed falling to the earth and dying and sprouting a new plant (signifying resurrected life) is more evident in the case of traditional burial. 

With the development of the modern technology of cremation and the fact that the anti-resurrection and pagan impulses among non-Christians were fading, the Church’s stance against cremation softened, and in the 1960s it began to allow the cremation of members. 

The Church strongly prefers that cremation take place after the funeral Mass, at which the body is present, so that it may be publicly honored. The Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) states: “Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites” (No. 413).

One of the practical im-pediments to having the body present for the funeral Mass is the cost factor. Cremation is cheaper than burial and there is no need for a casket and for a full-length grave. However, in many places funeral directors provide rental caskets for the funeral Mass.  

In 1997, the Holy See granted permission to the bishops of the United States to allow the cremated remains to be present at the funeral Mass and for all the rites associated with the funeral to be celebrated. The OCF states: “If the diocesan bishop has decided to allow the celebration of the Funeral Liturgy in the presence of the cremated remains of the deceased person, care must be taken that all is carried out with 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 in the entrance procession or may be placed on this table or stand sometime before the liturgy begins” (No. 427). 

Care must be taken that the cremated remains are buried or entombed with the appropriate rites. The OCF states: “The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbar-ium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires. Whenever possible, appropriate means for recording with dignity the memory of the deceased should be adopted, such as a plaque or stone which records the name of the deceased” (No. 417).  

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to mfmannion@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.