The Catholic Attitude towards Cremation

At a recent workshop on funerals, several questions arose about the current Catholic attitude towards cremation.
The Vatican lifted the ban on cremation for Catholics in 1963. While the present Code of Canon Law recommends that the custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed, it does not forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons that are contrary to Christian teaching.
The 1963 ruling made no allowance for prayer or rituals to be held with the cremated remain, so funeral services were still conducted in the presence of the body, with cremation taking place afterwards.
On March 21 1997 the Vatican granted permission to the USA for the cremated remains of a body to be brought into Church for the funeral rites.
While it is now possible to celebrate the funeral liturgy in the presence of the cremated remains in exceptional circumstances, 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, the body of the deceased Christian is brought to the church one last time. Just as he or she was welcomed at the entrance of the church on the day of baptism, washed free of sin in the font and clothed in the white robe of redemption, so now the body returns to the church’s house, the casket is sprinkled with holy water and clothed in the white 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 a loved one’s mortal 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 in the presence of family and friends, before the body is given over to the fire. Later, when the family is given the ashes, the cremated remains are reverently interred, again with family and a few friends present.
Christians believe that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that, on the last day, our bodies will be raised up with Christ. 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.
A tomb or grave becomes a place to visit, a special location for prayer and remembrance. Having such a place is an important part of the mourning and grieving process that makes us human beings.
While for these reasons Catholic teaching discourages the 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).


Elizabeth Harrington