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Can Catholics Be Cremated?

April 13, AD2013 18 Comments

One component of our diaconate formation this year has focused on ministries related to death and dying. To that end, our class watched the movie “Departures,” 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film. The main character is Daigo Kobayashi, an unemployed concert cellist who accidentally becomes an encoffiner, essentially an Japanese undertaker. Although initially nauseated by the work, he eventually grows to embrace his new-found calling.

Encoffination is a Japanese cultural ceremony in which the decedent is ritually cleansed, dressed, and casketed in the presence of mourners. Daigo learns to perform the rite with artful skill and grace, while preserving the deceased person’s modesty, thus bringing great comfort to the surviving family and friends. This beautiful ceremony bears witness to the very real human need to “say goodbye” with the senses, not just the head and heart, as well as the dignity and respect that should be accorded to the body.

Now, cue the fire!

That’s right; encoffination is followed by cremation, nearly 100% in Japan. All of that loving preparation culminates in the body simply being burned, and the juxtaposition of these two events induces no small amount of cognitive dissonance.

But why? Isn\’t cremation growing in popularity? Yes, it is. Doesn\’t it cost less than full-body burial? Yes, it often does. Don’t cremated remains take up less space? Yes, they do. Doesn\’t Holy Mother church permit cremation? Yes, she does, since the Vatican lifted the prohibition on cremation in 1963. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (CCC 2301).

That is precisely the danger. The Bible tells us that when Jesus returns to earth, he will physically raise all those who have died, giving them back the bodies they lost at death. For the righteous, they will be transformed into a glorified state, freed from suffering and pain (cf. 1 Cor. 15:35–44).

The resurrection of the body is an essential Christian doctrine, which has been infallibly defined by the Church. It is included in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed; it has been infallibly taught by ecumenical councils, including the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

What are the ramifications for cremation? In short, that urn full of ashes is a body, fundamentally the same as an intact corpse, which “must be treated with respect and charity…” (CCC 2300).

What does that mean practically? From the Order of Christian Funerals (no. 417):

This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, and 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 on the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires.

Knowing how to properly dispose of cremains is frequently an issue. Remember the movie “The Way” (2012) in which grieving father and non-practicing Catholic Tom Avery (Martin Sheen) scatters his son’s ashes along El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James)? Not exactly the best example. If cremated remains are to be treated as an intact body, scattering them ought to be unthinkable. The idea of keeping a loved one\’s ashes on the mantle or coffee table should seem similarly offensive.

The Funeral Rite recommends that cremation would ideally take place after the Funeral Liturgy with the body present (no. 418). According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops\’ January 2012 Newsletter of the Committee on Divine Worship, this is “so that there can be an opportunity for the Vigil for the Deceased in the presence of the body (during “visitation” or “viewing” at a church or funeral home). This allows for the appropriate reverence for the sacredness of the body at the Funeral Mass: sprinkling with holy water, the placing of the pall, and honoring it with incense.” Many Catholics don’t know that holding a funeral in the presence of cremated remains actually requires the permission of the local bishop (no. 426).

This echoes the message from the film \”Departures;\” there is a very real human need to “say goodbye” with the senses, and the human body must be accorded dignity and respect. Having experienced the sudden and shocking death of Lisa\’s dad, we understand the need for this full sensory experience that the presence of a body allows. To see and to touch his body was a critical part of the grieving process, not just for immediately family, but for all jolted by the suddenness of his earthly death.

Despite the Church\’s clear preference for intact burial, the rate of cremation among Catholics in the United States is on the rise, ranging from 20% in the Archdiocese of Atlanta to 40% in the Diocese of Phoenix. Is this purely for cost reasons? For space considerations? Others? We hope these factors are being weighed appropriately against the primary concerns of enabling the grieving process and treating the body with the appropriate reverence the Church has outlined.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Joel and Lisa Schmidt co-founded The Practicing Catholic, an antidote to the perception that piety is boring or that the Church is filled with “sour-faced saints”. In their writings, the Schmidts provide witness to the adventure of living an integrated Catholic life … not just on Sundays. For more about the Schmidts, please see their individual bios (Joel’s bio; Lisa’s bio).

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  • Siegfried Paul

    [“April 16, 2013 at 8:54”:] I think you can stop your discussion: “gay marriage” is not a problem for America because in the USA citizens live mostly in suburbs where you don’t find appartment houses. The problem of “gay marriage” has to be solved within the social structure of appartment houses. The real question is: do I want my children to grow up within the social structure of an appartment house dominated by “gay marriage”? The political decisions about the KINDERSPIELPLÄTZE – CHILDREN’S PLAYGROUNDS – of a whole city can be dominated by the interests – or rather: A LACK OF INTEREST – of “gay marriage” within the social structure of appartment houses. That’s the problem at the moment. I was a guest in Moscow and in Leningrad before Russia denied that it is a communist country: to remember the ceremony, when you wanted to get into an appartment house in Moscow, could teach you something.- My DOCTORAL DISSERTATION is to a certain extent on “HOMOSEXUALITY”, I found a copy of it also in the UNIVERSITY LIBRARY of REGENSBURG, . [I still found no answer to my two comments on less than one hour ago.]

  • Siegfried Paul
  • Siegfried Paul

    Kathleen, Tammy, I cannot doubt that Marthe Robin lived for many years without eating: only receiving the BODY OF CHRIST. If you know France and the names of the witnesses you will not doubt that. Marthe Robin predicted that France would sink into a corruption it had never known: but in the end it would be saved by the MOTHER OF JESUS. I had the impression at the moment, that many people in America think that America is sinking into a corruption America never knew of. I listen to the vision of Marthe Robin: this vision is based on the conviction that France is the “FIRST DAUGHTER OF THE CHURCH” – “LA FILLE AINEE DE L’EGLISE”. But isn’t France in this case also, to a certain extent, all the countries where an english language is spoken? Most english words are french words; and I was also a guest in Canada. A student of mine – who tried to convince me many months ago that the german pope Benedict was “NEIGE D’ANTAN” – is a “specialist” of “Canadian French”: there is no such thing, because there are several english languages and several german languages, but there is only o n e french language. – I contributed to the “Wikipedia”, to an article on an italian pope.

  • Kathleen,

    You ask a good question…if human remains can (and often are) spread because of natural forces, how can it be wrong for us to do so? In both my work and my life, I have made and assist others to make funeral plans. I believe we are called to do “our best” in whatever situation we are in and some of those situations can be tricky without perfect solutions. When I care for a Catholic who has am ectopic pregnancy, for instance, its hard to discern exactly which cells from the surgical specimen might be mom vs baby so I offer to bury the entire cluster of cells from histology if she is interested in burial.

    In my universe (as an informed Catholic) everyone from embryonic life through adults need respectful disposition which means burial (and I agree with you on the chemicals / vault thing) or cremation with ashes interred together.

    Lots of things in our world happen naturally which we cant change but that doesn’t make them acceptable. A man may naturally fall off a cliff but that doesn’t mean its OK to push someone off a cliff. An old sick person may naturally die but that doesn’t mean its OK to euthanize them. A pregnancy may naturally end in miscarriage but that doesn’t mean its OK to abort them. Nature may scatter the dust of the long-dead but that doesn’t mean its OK (as a Catholic who is instructed not to do that) to cremate and scatter the remains of our recently deceased.

    I think a really good (but currently rare) social trend is “green” burial where people are buried intact without chemicals and vaults. I wish I had had some version of that available to me when my husband died but the need to transport him led me (reluctantly) into the whole world of modern funeral practices where I had few options. I have even considered starting a “green” cemetery myself and I may do that as a project in the future.

    • Right, that all makes sense to me, and as I said, I’m perfectly willing to follow the magisterium. The most moving funeral I’ve sung for (and there have been a lot) was for a man who was buried in an unfinished pine box. Just beautiful.

    • Siegfried Paul

      Jesus says: “Let the dead bury their dead!” – “MATTHEW 8:22”, . I found a lot of explanations: Jesus doesn’t mean that, Jesus is using hyperbole, a rhetorical device. – I never thought so. – But I read at the moment the article about the deacon Stephen, (“last modified on 21 April 2013 at 01:21”, I contributed to the “Wikipedia”): and this article doesn’ t answer the question either, how “ACTS 8:2” can say that “godly men buried Stephen with great mourning” – , the comments are worse than no comments.

  • I’m not sure how to share my thoughts on this topic without getting myself in trouble. In the past few years I’ve become less enamored of “viewings” of the body, because the more times I see a body in a casket, the less human those remains look to me. Frankly, I won’t even go up to a casket anymore if I can possibly avoid it. It used to be that funerals were held within 48 hours; now it’s sometimes four, five, seven days–and still there’s a body present at the funeral. I understand the desire to facilitate family getting in from great distances, but at the same time, I am completely revolted by the chemical processes that have to be done to bodies to make them last that long. To me, that seems at least as disrespectful to the human body as cremation. We’re supposed to return to dust. We’re not supposed to sit in a vault for all eternity, chemically preserved.

    And I guess that’s where I am a little puzzled by the worry about cremation/scattering of ashes. The bones of people who died in the time of Jesus have long since fallen to dust, and probably been turned over by earthquakes and storms. Their remains have been scattered to the wind. Plus, what about those who were lost in the WTC, where the fires burned so hot that the bodies were incinerated? What about those who were vaporized by nuclear blasts? God is perfectly capable of pulling together the physical remains of people, no matter how far they’re spread. So I can’t help feeling like this is a human issue, not a God one.

    BUT–please don’t read that as a challenge of Church authority on the subject, either. Even if it puzzles me, I’m perfectly willing to follow the Magisterium’s teaching on the subject. I just am not sure it’s as big a deal as it’s sometimes made out to be. And if I’m off base, I’m perfectly open to learning.

  • Siegfried Paul

    I read that “the sea gave up the dead that were in it”, , at the moment, in the REVELATION of the disciple whom Jesus loves: ashes can be thrown into the sea after cremation. [I have to correct – “April 13, 2013 at 10:01 pm” – “Paul’s”.]

  • aged parent

    Well, the short answer to your headline is “no”.

    And as one wise priest once said at Mass,”You burn garbage; you don’t burn God’s creation.”

  • Thank you for educating people about this topic…as a convert, former Hospital Chaplaincy student, Bereavement Nurse and now widow, I have had to deal with death from all sides and frequently. It drives me crazy that so many of the people I interact with have no idea of the proper teachings on this and reasons behind them. Our Church’s teachings on this are WISE and we do well to follow them !!!

    I chose to transport my husbands remains 3000 miles (back to the town of his birth) after his death. I briefly considered cremation as an option to make that cheaper and more efficient. I realized, however that I would be denying his brothers the opportunity to carry his casket and that was their birthright and I wouldn’t take that from them. I was very glad I kept him intact for his parents to view him and his brothers and best friends to be pall bearers. The extra cost to transport him was covered by a generous group of friends.

    I heard the hometown funeral director expected him in a Marine Corps Dress uniform as he was a Naval Academy graduate and combat veteran career officer. Nope..I buried him in a soft well-worn Lakers tshirt and North Face pants. I gave his dress uniforms to younger officers along with the story of the man who wore them.

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  • Siegfried Paul

    I separate the period of the life of Paul of Tarsus before his three days of blindness and the period beginning with his very long years of hidden life – partly in the ARABIAN DESERT – like I separate the period of the history of Israel before the three days of darkness in Egypt and the period after Moses and Aaron leave the Pharao and his queen. Pauls new body is LIGHT: therefore a GRAVE has no meaning for him and therefore an understanding of Pauls theology gains weight at the moment – we abandon the GRAVE, where we can visit our PARENTS and find our NAME. Very fast CREMATION is becoming more and more common, although we still miss the GRAVE of the MOTHER. – I am convinced, however: the name “P A U L” was given to Paul by a MAN, Paul would not be Paul without this name of a family of Rome, that must have been given to him for a precise reason. [My comment was published on less than one hour ago.]

  • Kathleen

    I asked God the Holy Spirit if He wanted me to be cremated and He said “NO”. So, I then asked Him if He wanted me to be buried and He said “YES!”. I obey.

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  • Interesting analysis of the resurrection in the book by Benedict 16 “introduction to Christianity”. Dogma? it’s quite an ambiguous phrase. Please check the Pope emeritus conceptualization.
    In “Introduction to Christianity”, Ratzinger explicitly denies the resurrection of the body. ‘It now becomes clear that the real heart of faith in the resurrection does not consist at all in the idea of the restoration of bodies, to which we have reduced it in our thinking; such is the case even though this is the pictorial image used throughout the Bible’. He says that the word body, or flesh, in the phrase, the resurrection of the body, ‘in effect means “the world of man” . . . [it is] not meant in the sense of a corporality isolated from the soul’ (pp 240-41).
    Just sayin’