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The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (no. 67)

Catholic Funerals:  What the Church Teaches About Cremation
Hope in Christ teaches us to speak openly about death, to resist a culture of the denial of death. As death may come unexpectedly, it is important that families think and talk about funerals beforehand. Even when death occurs after a long illness, it comes as a shock. Grieving families should not have to make  important decisions in a hurry.

These days, one of those decisions is whether the deceased body is to be buried intact (“corporeal burial”) or cremated. This decision leads necessarily to others. Faithful Catholics will want such decisions to be informed by the Faith they profess and by the centuries-long experience of the Church.

Does the Church allow cremation? “While the Church continues to hold a preference for corporeal burial, cremation has become part of Catholic practice in the United States and around the world” (Website of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops).

Is this a change in the Church teaching? Yes, for centuries the Catholic Church (with almost all other Christian communions) forbade cremation, because it was associated with pagan religious practice and beliefs about the body—for example that the body is but a kind of  “shell” or even a “prison” for the soul. Only very recently (1983), was the Code of Canon Law changed to read:  “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (C.C.C. 1176). The Bishops have explained that the change was influenced by “sensitivity to economic, geographic, ecological, or family factors” that may make cremation the only reasonable choice (USCCB website).

Why, then, does the Church still “earnestly recommend” corporeal burial over cremation? “The Church's reverent care of the body grows out of reverence for the person whom the Church now commends to the care of God. This is the body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. . . .  The human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it is hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body” (CCB website, italics added). This explanation reflects deep reflection on Scriptural teaching about the creation and redemption of the body, about our bodily    participation in our final redemption (Romans 8:23; Apostles Creed). The point is that human dignity demands that the body is no “thing” to be disposed of. It is, rather, to be honored and lovingly “laid to rest”.

If cremation is chosen, what guidance does the church give us concerning the funeral or about how the remains are to be treated? (1) Without exception, no body is to be cremated without being accompanied by the prayers of the Church. (2) Just so, unless circumstances make it impossible, the intact body is to be present at the funeral mass. The cremation takes place after the funeral mass, following the committal. (3) If this is simply impossible (as it may be, for example in the case of death in a foreign county far from home) the cremated remains are to be present at the funeral. (4) Cremated remains are never to be spread on the ground, thrown to the wind, stored away in a closest, or rest for years on the mantle. They are to be placed in a suitable urn and buried in a marked grave or placed in a mausoleum space.

In the committal of the body to the elements—the final act of the Funeral Rite—the priest recalls the words of St. Paul:  Our true citizenship is in heaven, and from heaven we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will change our lowly body to be conformed to his glorious body, by the power which enables him to subject all things to himself  (Philippians 3:20-21). The bodies of the blessed dead belong, not to us, but to Christ himself. It is this joyful mystery that determines the way Catholic Christians bury their dead.

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