Cremation for Catholics?

Many Catholics today still believe that the Church forbids cremation. This was true, for a variety of reasons, prior to Vatican II. The Judaic roots of Christian tradition carried a long-standing prohibition of cremation as a reaction to equally long-standing attempts to annihilate Jewish existence and memory.

Although cremation was a common practice among Greeks and Romans, at least for the very poor, Christians moved away from the practice out of:
  • faith in the Resurrection of the body;
  • reverence for the body as a member of the Body of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit;
  • a strong reaction to persecutors' use of burning bodies as a taunt against belief in the Resurrection.
The practice of the early Church came to be crystallized in the Code of Canon Law which strictly forbade cremation except when grave public necessity required rapid disposition of bodies, as in times of plague or natural disaster. The Church went so far as to deny Christian burial rites to anyone choosing cremation.

The reforms of the Second Vatican Council touched all areas in the life of the Church, including funeral and burial rites. The first document to be promulgated by Pope Paul VI, after the Council, stated: "The rite for the burial of the dead should evidence more clearly the paschal character of Christian death; and should correspond more closely to the circumstance s and traditions found in various regions." An instruction of the Holy Office related specifical ly to cremation modified the Church's position to allow cremation to be requested for any sound reason. Only if the request were motivated by denial of Christian dogma, hatred of the Catholic Church or a sectarian spirit, would there be any problem with the Church.

This position has now been codified in the Revised Code of Canon Law: "The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching."

When Cremation is Allowed

While the Church still prefers burial or entombment, after the manner of Christ's own burial, out of respect for the human body and belief in the Resurrection, cremation may be chosen for "sufficient reason." Here are some general considerations to keep in mind when facing the question of cremation:
  • Cremation may be requested for hygienic, economic or other reasons of a public or private nature. Some examples would be: transfer of the remains to a distant place, possible avoidance of considerable expense, national tradition or custom, a severe psychological or pathological fear of burial in the ground or a tomb.
  • The selection of cremation must have been the specific choice of the individual before death.
  • Cremation, however, may also be requested by the family of the deceased for what also might be determined good and/or pastoral reasons that can be accommodated. (An obvious instance would be the case of a family's desire to transfer the remains to a distant place.)
  • According to current Archdiocesan Guidelines, the priest, whose responsibility it is to perform the funeral, must determine that the reasons for choosing cremation are within those recognized by the Church.
  • When cremation is seen as an acceptable alternative to the normal manner of Catholic burial, the various elements of the funeral rite should be conducted in the usual way and, normally, with the body present.
  • The ordinary practice of Christian burial includes the Vigil Service, the celebration of the Funeral Mass at the Church, and the Rite of Final Commendation at the cemetery.
  • Although all the elements of the Funeral Rite have importance, priority should be given to the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy with the body of the deceased present.
Pre-Need and the Issues of Cremation

Perhaps nowhere is the need for the advance planning of burial and funeral rites more important than in the situation where the individual has reviewed all of the important Church tradition and teaching and come to the conclusion that sufficient reason exists to select the cremation option. That pre-planning is critical for a number of reasons:
  • the opportunity to raise the question with other family members and discuss their feelings;
  • the need to research the impact of the cremation option on the celebration of the Church's funeral rites;
  • the need to understand fully what is being selected and what obligations remain to be satisfied (e.g., burial and/or inurnment).
Most of us are accustomed to making our own decisions about our daily life and future plans. We exert our control over the final distribution of our assets and care of our survivors through our will and provision of life insurance policies. The care and attention given to these decisions should also be extended to the decision about cremation.

What steps should you take?
  1. Research the question and understand the teachings of your faith community.
  2. Discuss this matter with those closest to you to ascertain their ability to deal with this desire on your part should you pre-decease them.
  3. Consult with experienced professionals about arrangements that can be made in advance. Such selections would include choice of cemetery, decision about in-ground or above-ground inurnment of the cremated remains, selection of appropriate urn, and provision for payment in advance of all items that can be secured in this fashion.
  4. Study and understand the variety of funeral rite options that are provided for the benefit of you and your survivors, rites that have traditionally included the Vigil, Celebration of the Eucharist with the body present, and a Committal Service. Take into account the time necessary to perform the cremation and insert that into the schedule of these celebrations. This will be especially important when the decision for cremation is based on a desire to be buried at considerable distance from the place of death.
Disposition of Cremated Remains

People do a lot of different things with cremated remains: some scatter the remains, some keep them at home, some leave the remains at the crematorium or the funeral home. Some choose burial or inurnment in a cemetery. The Church recommends burial or inurnment of cremated remains as a mark of respect for the human body which was a temple of the Holy Spirit, was nourished at the Eucharistic Table and will share in the Resurrection. In addition, the value of memorialization is twofold:

  • Memorials constitute a visible history of our faith community.
  • Memorials are an important aid to survivors, providing a focal point for the expression of grief and a place of comfort as survivors go through the grieving process.
Burial or Inurnment Options

The first selection related to burial or inurnment of cremated remains is really the last selection, i.e. the urn to hold those remains which are returned from the crematory. That selection will be guided by the following decisions.
In general terms, there are two options for the final disposition of cremated remains: in-ground burial and above-ground inurnment.

I. Ground Burial of Cremated Remains:
  • In existing full grave with arrangements for one or more cremation burials and suitable memorialization.
  • In a ground burial area designed with smaller graves to accommodate cremated remains and provision for either flush ground or above-ground memorialization.
  • In the same grave space as already utilized or reserved for another family member's full burial, with observance of the cemetery's regulation for memorialization in such instances.
II. Above-Ground Inurnment of Cremated Remains in a Columbarium:
  • A columbarium with an open face (glass front) may be selected; this is only found inside of a building.
  • A columbarium with a closed face granite construction generally will be found in both interior or exterior settings.
  • A columbarium with a closed face marble construction will generally be found in colder and wet climates inside a building only.
  • In some instances a cemetery may make provision to allow for the inurnment of one or more cremated remains in a full mausoleum crypt and permit memorialization on the face of that crypt for the remains of the individual inurned.
  • In making the selection of the cremation urn one should keep in mind the location selected - will it be seen or concealed? Does the urn space selected make provision for identification of the individual? Obviously, a glass fronted niche will not do so and therefore the memorialization or the identification will have to be executed on the urn itself.
It is important to remember again that the Church still recommends burial or inurnment in a Catholic cemetery. Throughout the history of the Church, the Catholic cemetery has served as a visible sign of the faith community, attesting to the dignity of the baptized and the promise of the Resurrection. Catholic cemeteries are sacred places where we come to be reminded of our history, to be immersed in our Catholic beliefs and practices and to see our community professing its value system even in the silence of the grave.