In recent weeks I have had several questions about the current Catholic attitude towards cremation and about what is appropriate practice for disposal of the ashes.
Cremation has been an acceptable alternative to ground burial or entombment for Catholics since 1963. The present Code of Canon Law recommends that the custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; however, it does not forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons that are contrary to Christian teaching, such as to deny the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.
While it is now possible in exceptional circumstances to celebrate the funeral liturgy in the presence of the cremated remains, it is recommended that the cremation occur after the funeral liturgy because an important sign in the funeral liturgy is the body of the deceased Christian who was created in the image and likeness of God.
At the funeral liturgy, we bring the body of our loved one back to the house of the church one last time. Just as he or she was welcomed at the door on the day of baptism, washed free of sin in the font and clothed in the shining robe of redemption, so now we welcome the body back to the church’s house one final time; we sprinkle the casket with holy water and clothe it in the pall – a reminder of the baptismal garment. The body then rests near the paschal candle. Much of this symbolism is lost if the body is not present.
The Rite of Committal is the final stage of the Christian funeral – the moment of last good-byes and the reverent laying to rest of the body or cremated remains. When the body is present, it may be taken to the crematorium at the conclusion of the funeral liturgy. The Rite of Committal can be celebrated there, before the body is given over to the fire, in the presence of family and friends. Later, when the family is given the ashes, the cremated remains can be quietly interred, again with family and a few friends present.
The church teaches that cremated remains should be treated with the same respect given to the corporeal remains of a human body. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, care and attention to appropriate transportation, and a final disposition (Order of Christian Funerals 416). The cremated remains of a body should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium.
While Catholic teaching discourages scattering of ashes, the local bishop can grant a dispensation if he judges that it will contribute to the spiritual good of the faithful (canon 87).
We believe that our bodies are good and holy, and that, on the last day, in glorious mystery, our bodies will be raised up with Christ. This is better signified when we inter the cremated remains of our loved ones in a grave or tomb. And there is a practical side to this as well: a tomb or grave becomes a place to visit, to remember and to pray. Having such a place is an important part of the mourning and grieving process that makes us human beings.


Elizabeth Harrington