Catholic Cremation and the Columbarium

Many churches have established a columbarium to receive the ashes of the deceased in or near the church. Like the graveyard of old, this preserves the remains and names of those we love at the heart of the praying Christian community of the parish.

In the Catholic funeral rites, the body of the deceased is the most important symbol of the person whom we farewell and commend to God’s mercy, and for whom we pray. We treat the body with reverence, clothing the coffin in a baptismal pall and sprinkling it with water, decorating it with beautiful flowers, and venerating it with incense. After the Catholic funeral liturgy in the presence of the body, our care for the dead takes us from the church to the place of burial or cremation.

When the body is cremated, preferably after the funeral, Catholic practice is to treat the ashes as we would the body, namely as a primary symbol of the person, and so with due honour and respect. The human remains after cremation are buried or placed in a columbarium.

There is however a liturgical problem here - the double rite of committal (see OCF 212 and Praenotanda 15).  When the body is taken from the church to the crematorium, the first rite of committal is celebrated in a way analogous to burial.  This rite concludes the liturgy on the day of the funeral: the mourners are blessed and sent forth in the peace of Christ.

However, there is a second rite of committal to be celebrated when the ashes are returned to the family and they are buried or placed in the columbarium niche. What happens in a single rite at burial is split into two phases – first the reverent disposal of the body and second the establishment of the sacred memorial of a person’s earthly remains.  The two committal rites should not be seen as a mere repetition, but as different rites each with its distinctive meaning and emphasis.  The selection and adaptation of liturgical texts will be critical.

As a stand-alone liturgy some weeks or months after the funeral, the committal of the ashes may include a longer Scripture reading and a homily (OCF 212), though sometimes the placement of the ashes is treated as a private event with only a few family members present. The church may often not be involved at all.

In the case of a columbarium at the parish church, the rite would naturally take on a stronger communal focus. The priest or other pastoral leader would make of it a genuine liturgical rite.  One could even imagine some elements of the rite of committal being incorporated into the Sunday Mass with a final procession to the columbarium.  The deceased could be mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer and the family included in the general intercessions.  Family members would hold the ashes during a prayer at the end of Mass and the prayer of committal could be prayed upon arrival at the columbarium in the presence of some or all of the parish community.

Elizabeth Harrington