Church permits cremation, provided it’s not a denial of faith

Q: There does not seem to be any information in booklet or book form, nor ever a mention from the pulpit, about cremation.

For years it was banned and suddenly it was approved by the church. Why?

When my son was cremated in 1985 in San Francisco and the ashes sent to Philadelphia, my parish pastor told me he would not go to the cemetery. A Mass of Christian Burial was offered for my son, but his ashes had to remain outside in the hearse. Why was this?

Thank you for any enlightenment you can provide.

Name withheld

A: Cremation has been debated throughout history, but has been seen as a contrary act to the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body and in opposition to the reverence with which the body is held as a member of the Body of Christ. There were formerly penalities that came with the practice of cremation.

A new instruction from the Vatican, Paim et constantem, published in 1963, stated: “Cremation does not affect the soul nor prevent God’s omnipotence from restoring the body; neither then, does it in itself include an objective denial of … dogma. The issue is not therefore an instrinsically evil act, opposed per se to the Christian religion.”

The document urged the practice of burial and did not explicitly permit cremated remains to be present at the funeral Mass, but it did lift the penalties associated with cremation.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law (1176, 3) restated the churches acceptance, but not promotion of cremation. “The church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed, nevertheless, the church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2301) states: “The church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”

Until 1997, the church offered no guidelines for funeral services in the presence of cremated remains.

In 1989, the revised version of the 1966 Order of Christian Funerals still did not make provisions for the presence of cremated remains at the funeral liturgy. An increase in popularity of cremation prompted the U.S. bishops to ask the Vatican in 1996 to grant permission to diocesan bishops to allow cremated remains at funeral Masses. The Vatican responded positively to this request and an appendix (Appendix 2) to the Order of Christian Funeral was created, which outlined a funeral liturgy in the presence of the cremated remains.

However, an appendix to Appendix 2, “Reflections on the Body, Cremation and Catholic Funeral Rites,” created for catechetical purposes, reiterated the church position. “The Catholic Church strongly prefers that the body of the deceased be present for its funeral rites since the presence of the body most clearly brings to mind the life and death of the person. Therefore, the bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy recommends that cremation take place following the funeral liturgy. … However, when circumstances prevent the presence of the body at the funeral liturgy, the committee believes that it is appropriate that the cremated remains of the body be present for the full course of the funeral rites, including the Vigil for the Deceased, the Funeral Liturgy, and the Rite of Committal. … The cremated remains of the body should then be reverently buried or entombed in a cemetery or mausoleum.”

Sources: Order of Christian Funerals; The Catechism of the Catholic Church; Code of Canon Law; “Reflections on the Body, Cremation and Catholic Funeral Rites”; Cremation in Catechesis and the Funeral Liturgy, by Mark Cunningham, Living Light Summer, 1998.

If you have a question about the Catholic faith, write to The New Catholic Miscellany, From the Catechism, P. O. Box 818, Charleston, SC 29402.

Look for more indepth information on cremation in The New Catholic Miscellany in coming months.