Liturgical and pastoral approaches to cremation



Cremation has been permitted since 1963 when the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) lifted its ban but allowing its use only under certain circumstances and only after all liturgies had been celebrated. Since the Holy See granted permission in 1997 to U.S. bishops to allow funeral Masses in the presence of cremated remains and because of spiraling funeral costs, Catholics in this country have opted for cremation in greater numbers than ever before. By some estimates 30 percent of Catholics in the United States are now cremated. Here in southern Beaufort County, the number is reportedly 80 percent.

There have been inappropriate practices, confusion and misinformation about its use. This article will highlight the church’s teachings and guidelines so that those in pastoral ministry may properly instruct and guide the faithful.

What is cremation?

Most people refer to the remains as “ashes.” In reality there are no ashes, only bone fragments. Some use the word “cremains.” This is a commercial term coined by the funeral industry. The proper term is “cremated remains.”

Did the church always forbid cremation?

No. Burial of the body has been the custom of the church since apostolic times. But exceptions did occur. Cremation has been used in Asian societies for centuries. There has been the need to cremate many deceased persons following a tragedy like the Plague. In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, cremation was strictly forbidden and resulted in ecclesiastical penalties for those violating the law. This was owing to the period following the French Revolution when cremation became an instrument to promote anticlericalism and to deny the belief in the resurrection of the body. In the 1960s Pope Paul VI took the matter into consideration. Due to the change in social, economic and environmental conditions, he decided to lift the ban on cremation but to reserve the right to prohibit it in cases of anti-Christian belief. Such prohibitions are very rare.

What is the current church law governing cremation?

Canon 1176 ยง3 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law says, “The church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.”

The appendix governing cremation in the Order of Christian Funerals reads, “Although cremation is now permitted by the church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. The church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites” [OCF 413].

A person in pastoral ministry does not have the authority to prohibit cremation or the celebration of the funeral rites with the cremated remains present simply because he or she may dislike the practice.

Why does the church teach that burial of the body is preferred to cremation?

When Jesus became incarnate, the human body in a sense became a new creation. That God would choose to wear human flesh speaks volumes about the dignity and sanctity of the body. It is the body that is washed in baptism, is anointed in confirmation, and is fed the Eucharist. It is the body that is present in worship of God and in service of humanity. Our human bodies tell our stories of love, faith, kindness, struggle and pain. Lying in death, it is the body that silently testifies to the promise of immortality. “Indeed, the human body is inextricably associated with the human person, which acts and is experienced by others through that body” [OCF 411].

What do the church’s instructions teach us about the preferred and proper ways to approach cremation?

1) It is recommended that the cremation take place after the funeral liturgy (i.e. funeral Mass). In addition to the reasons enumerated above, there are good reasons why the body should be cremated after the funeral liturgy. For many people it is important to see the body of the deceased. Such is particularly true for family and friends who were not present when the person was dying due to illness or when death has been sudden. Seeing the body of the deceased is an important psychological confirmation that the person is indeed dead. The celebration of the vigil for the deceased (or as some still call it, the “viewing”) with the prepared body present in an open casket is an important and often necessary time for family and friends to gather.

Further, the body is treated differently at the funeral Mass than are cremated remains. The casket is draped in the pall whereas the urn containing the cremated remains is not. The words spoken by the priest when sprinkling the remains with holy water at the beginning of the Mass differ whether the body or cremated remains are present [OCF 433].

The pastoral minister must recognize that there are often factors governing a family’s decision to choose to have the body cremated before the Mass. Guide gently but respect their decision.

2) A worthy vessel is to be used. Economy and personal taste can vary the choices of vessel. Most funeral homes and cremation centers offer a wide variety of vessels, from elaborate and expensive marble urns to simple wooden boxes. Attention must be given to the word “worthy.” Funeral directors report cases when family or friends allowed whimsy to govern their choice of urn rather than good taste. Thus golf bags, statuary, bottles, jewelry and the cardboard boxes provided by funeral homes are but a few examples of vessels that are unacceptable.

Some parishes have had a large ossuary constructed to house the vessel during the funeral rites. Father Richard Rutherford, a professor of pastoral liturgy in Oregon, writes that such an ossuary could be a wooden or terra cotta chest large enough to accommodate whatever vessel the family has chosen but not so large that it duplicates a casket. It could be decorated with appropriate Christian symbols, perhaps reflecting the iconography of the early catacombs, and would lend to an equality and simplicity in death especially for those unable to afford expensive urns.

3) The vessel is to be carried with respect and is to be placed appropriately. When a body in a coffin arrives at the church for the funeral liturgies, it is usually met by pallbearers and with some degree of pomp as the bodily remains are carried into the church. It is not always so with a small vessel containing cremated remains. Sometimes the remains arrive at the church in the hands of the UPS or FedEx delivery person. And different parishes have different ways of bringing the cremated remains forward for the funeral rites inside the church.

In our parish, we encourage the celebration of the vigil at the church rather than a funeral home. The church is the familiar spiritual home of the deceased and the family. A funeral home is a place of business. When cremation has taken place before the rites have been celebrated, the family arrives at the church at the appointed time accompanied by the funeral director who has brought the cremated remains. Using the rites outlined in the OCF, the priest or deacon greets the family. A family member carries the vessel forward in procession to a small table or pedestal (never the altar) placed in the center aisle near the sanctuary (otherwise the funeral director will carry the vessel) where the paschal candle also has been placed. This ritual action lends itself to the same dignity experienced with the carrying of a coffin.

If there is a weekday Mass the following morning, it may be best to leave the vessel in the body of the church until the celebration of the funeral Mass later that day. By doing so parishioners who may not have known the deceased and would not likely attend the funeral are able to pray for that person in the presence of his or her remains and thus experience a deeper connection to the parish community.

The same ritual dignity is observed at the end of the funeral Mass whereby someone carries out the urn in procession. If the committal is to take place somewhere other than the church property it is best to take the urn immediately to the vehicle of the funeral director or a family member.

4) The final disposition. Plans must be made to take charge of the cremated remains after the funeral especially when the committal does not take place immediately thereafter. The church’s instructions are quite clear: “The cremated remains should be placed in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering [italics added] 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” [OCF 417].

For some reason people presume they need to scatter cremated remains. What does scattering say? The gesture says clearly that something is being tossed away or disposed of almost as though it is now useless. The human body, even when cremated, is not to be treated in this fashion. It deserves burial or entombment.

Some have argued that the church allowed the scattering on the ocean of the cremated remains of John F. Kennedy Jr. This is not quite accurate. The urn containing his remains was opened and the cremated remains were gently poured (but not scattered) into the ocean. The urn was not immersed because a tabloid newspaper had paid scuba divers to retrieve it. Cremated remains may be buried at sea through the use of a special potterylike urn that dissolves about one hour after it has been immersed.

However, there is a rather serious pastoral problem that often arises. What is the priest or pastoral minister to do when the family refuses to bury or entomb the deceased’s remains in a cemetery, mausoleum or columbarium? What should be done when the family insists on keeping the cremated remains in the home? Clearly, the OCF states that the remains should be buried or entombed. Does that instruction mean the cremated remains must be buried or entombed? An opinion issued by the Office of the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy of the USCCB states that the liturgical advisors and the bishops were certainly convinced of the absolute necessity to bury the cremated remains. Thus the priest or pastoral minister is to exercise prudence in strongly encouraging the family to bury or entomb the remains in an appropriate location while at the same time recognizing that the family likely has the final say in the matter.


Since the choice of cremation is relatively new in the Catholic Church in America, the faithful sometimes do not have a clear understanding of what the church teaches about it or how the liturgical rites provide for it. Often our faithful will follow the suggestions of the well-meaning but sometimes uninformed funeral industry or non-Catholic friends and family. The priest and pastoral minister will serve the faithful well by presenting workshops on current Catholic funeral and burial practices, by preparing homilies on the matter (emphasizing the sanctity of the human body) and by consulting with local funeral homes to make certain they understand and honor Catholic teachings and directives.

Father H. Gregory West is pastor of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Bluffton and serves on the Commission for Divine Worship and Sacraments of the Diocese of Charleston.