Catholic Church law used to forbid cremation, but it now makes allowance for the practice. The church recommends that the bodies of the faithful be buried, but it permits cremation if the reasons for choosing that method are not contrary to Christian teaching.
Viewing the body of the deceased naturally recalls the personís deeds of kindness and testimony of faith. It brings to mind our belief that the human body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and the heir to glory at the resurrection of the dead. Because of the reverence owed the body, the Catholic Church still prefers its burial at the time of death. When cremation is chosen, the remains merit the same respect accorded to the body. They deserve a worthy vessel and a respectful means of transport.
There are several options for the funeral liturgy.
The church strongly recommends that cremated remains be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium rather than scattered or kept in a private home.
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:
The practice of the early Church came to be crystallized in the 1917 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 began, 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 circumstances and traditions found in various regions." (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #81, December 1963) An instruction of the Holy Office related specifically to cremation modified the Church's position to allow cremation to be requested for any sound reason (Piam et Constantem, May 1963). 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." (The Code of Canon Law, 1985, #1176.3)
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:
Pre-Planning 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:
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?
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 1997 the bishops of the United States published a booklet called Reflections on the Body, Cremation, and Catholic Funeral Rights that presents pastoral guidelines for Catholics who choose cremation. In part the US bishops say:
"The remains of cremated bodies should be treated with the same respect given to the corporal remains of a human body. This includes the manner in which they are carried, the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and their final disposition. The cremated remains of a body should be entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium; they may also be buried in a common grave in a cemetery. The practices 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 of memorializing the deceased should be utilized, such as a plaque or stone that records the name of the deceased."
In addition, the value of memorialization is twofold:
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.
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.