While cremation is definitely becoming more and more popular, it is actually something new to Catholic Christian tradition. The early Church retained the Jewish practice of bodily burial and rejected the common pagan Roman practice of cremation.
The basis for this rule was simply that God has created each person in His image and likeness, and therefore the body is good and should be returned to the earth at death (Gen 3:19). Moreover, our Lord Himself was buried in the tomb and then rose in glory on Easter. Therefore, Christians buried their dead both out of respect for the body and in anticipation of the resurrection at the last judgment. St. Paul reminds us, “The Lord Himself will come down from Heaven at the word of command, at the sound of the archangel's voice and God's trumpet; and those who have died in Christ will rise first” (1 Thes 4:16).
The Church's stance against cremation was also reinforced by those who mocked the belief in the resurrection of the body. Many of the early martyrs were burned at the stake and then their persecutors scattered their ashes as a sign of contempt for this Christian belief.
After the legalization of Christianity in the fourth century, cremation generally ceased in the Roman Empire. As Christian culture continued to spread, even in those missionary lands, regular bodily burial became the norm, even in cultures that had once practiced cremation. Due to the religious belief of the people, the civil authorities also outlawed cremation: for example Charlemagne made cremation at capital offense in 789. The only exception given to this rule was when there may have been a mass death and the spread of disease threatened.
In the 19th century, cremation again arose in Europe due greatly to the Freemasonry movement and the rationalist philosophy which denied any notion of the supernatural or spiritual, particularly the immortality of the soul, the afterlife and the resurrection of the body. The concern for hygiene and the conservation of land also prompted a revival. Many began to view cremation as an acceptable funeral custom. Nevertheless, largely motivated by the affront to the Catholic faith posed by cremation, the Church officially condemned the practice in 1886.
The old 1917 Code of Canon Law (No. 1203) prohibited cremation and required the bodies of the faithful to be buried. Again, an exception was given in times of mass death and the threat of disease. Those individuals who had directed their bodies to be cremated were denied ecclesiastical burial.
In 1963, the Church clarified this regulation. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (then known as the Holy Office) issued an instruction Piam et Constantem stating, “The constant pious practice among Christians, of burying the bodies of the faithful departed, has always been the object of solicitude on the part of the Church, shown both by providing it with appropriate rites to express clearly the symbolic and religious significance of burial, and by establishing penalties against those who attacked this salutary practice.” The Church permitted cremation in cases of necessity, but prohibited it for anyone who was making a stand against the faith.
The new Code of Canon Law (1983) stipulates, “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” (No. 1176.3). Therefore, a person may choose to be cremated if he has the right intention. However, the cremated remains must be treated with respect and should be interred in a grave or columbarium.
A pastoral problem with cremation has concerned their presence at the funeral Mass and then their placement afterwards. Until recently, the cremated remains could not be present for the funeral Mass. On March 21, 1997, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments granted an indult authorizing each local bishop to set a policy regarding the presence of the cremated remains for the funeral Mass. The Sacred Congregation emphasized that the cremated remains must be treated with respect and must be interred after the funeral Mass.
Accordingly, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops with the approval of the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued the following instruction, entitled “Reflections on the Body, Cremation, and Catholic Funeral Rites,” which was incorporated into the Order of Christian Funerals: “The cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. 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).
As a priest, I believe that the entire Catholic funeral liturgy the vigil service, the Mass of Christian Burial, and the Final Committal and Burial offers to us a great reminder of our faith and aids in our healing. The regular liturgical prayers and actions are designed to honor the body. Moreover, the body best reminds us of that person who entered a new life at Baptism, becoming a “temple of the Lord,” was anointed at confirmation, was nourished with the holy Eucharist, and has now gone, we hope and pray, to the fulfillment of that life and eternal rest.
While the death of someone we love is always hard to face, there is something good and comforting when we gather as a faith community in the presence of our Lord and the body of the deceased, and offer that loved one back to God. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion, I have dealt with families who have had the deceased loved one cremated, and later regretted the action, even feeling great guilt. I always recommend for people who want to be cremated or want to have their deceased loved one cremated that they do so after the funeral Mass and then inter the remains properly. While cremation is permitted and the indult allows the presence of the cremated remains at the funeral Mass, the preference remains to bury the body of the deceased loved one (Reflections No. 413).
Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)