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Cremation and the Catholic Funeral

  A Growing Practice
  The Body in Christian Belief

 The Ritual

A change is coming in the funeral ritual in many U.S. dioceses. The Vatican has granted permission for U.S. bishops to allow funeral Masses to be celebrated in the presence of cremated remains. Although the Church still recommends burial of the body over cremation, the bishops are showing sensitivity to a growing pastoral need in our country. We applaud their sensitivity.

Understanding both the U.S. pastoral need and the history of the cremation prohibition helps put the Vatican permission into perspective.

A Growing Practice

There was a time when some people had their bodies cremated as an affront to Christianity’s belief in the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul. Thus, the Church strictly prohibited cremation (and continues to do so if it is meant as a denial of Christianity). Thankfully, such cases are rare today. People decide on cremation for a number of other reasons. Economics is high on the list.

The National Funeral Directors Association reported that the average U.S. funeral cost $4,694 in 1995. That figure does not include other burial costs that could add thousands of dollars: burial vault, grave purchase and other essential fees. Cremation costs can add up, too, but generally cremation is considerably less expensive than burial.

Some people choose cremation because transporting a body a long distance for burial is very expensive. Some choose cremation for ecological reasons—cremated remains occupy less land than bodies.

Nationally, about one in five bodies is cremated today. In the Western states that average is closer to one out of two. Those numbers are growing. A quick search on the Internet turns up about 3,100 World Wide Web pages devoted to cremation. From general information about cremation to price comparisons to funeral home advertisements, it all points to a cultural change. From a religious standpoint, the problem is that most people don’t know much about Church burial guidelines until someone in their family dies.

There have been countless pastoral nightmares when a family has had a body cremated, then contacted their parish to make funeral arrangements only to learn that no Mass of Christian Burial could take place unless the body itself was present. That’s been the rule in most U.S. dioceses until now. This created a serious burden of grief for families already coping with the death of a loved one.

After a tragic death the problem was all the worse. How could the parish minister fully to these families without celebrating a funeral Mass? Memorial Masses, as meaningful as they are, somehow are just not the same as a funeral in the presence of a loved one’s remains.

The Body in Christian Belief

The easing of the cremation rules for Catholics began with a 1963 instruction from the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). That instruction allowed for cremation in cases of necessity (excluding rejection of Christian belief) but indicated, “The practice of burying the bodies of the faithful is by all means to be kept.”

The current Code of Canon Law (revised in 1983) retains this clear preference for burial or entombment: “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (#1176).

The reasons for this preference of burial over cremation are explained well in a new pamphlet from the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, Reflections on the Body, Cremation and Catholic Funeral Rites. (The pamphlet can be ordered by calling 1-800-235-8722.)

Essentially, the body is important to Christians and is to be highly reverenced. We believe that God became fully human in Jesus—that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus redeem all of creation. We are not souls trapped in bodies; humans are transcendent physical beings with souls. As Catholics say, we are temples of the Holy Spirit.

The body itself, though dead, remains a vivid reminder of the faith story of the person who has died. To quote the bishops’ pamphlet, “This is the body once washed in Baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation and fed with the bread of life. This is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing.”

Burial is also a reminder to Christians of Jesus’ being placed in the tomb on his way to resurrection.

The Ritual

It will be up to the ordinary in each U.S. diocese whether or not to allow cremated remains at a funeral Mass. (The practice has been permitted in Canada for some time.) The U.S. bishops’ conference submitted new ritual prayers and adaptations to the Vatican some months ago and expects hasty approval.

Even when cremation is chosen, the Church urges that the body be present for its funeral rites first. The funeral rite adaptation for the presence of cremated remains is for cases of necessity.

A key point in the adaptation is that ashes are to be transported and disposed of with the same respect as a body. Say the bishops, “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.” The bishops also instruct that there be an appropriate memorial plaque or stone whenever possible.

For most of us funerals will remain the same as ever. But to those for whom cremation is the only feasible choice, for whatever valid reasons, these changes in the ritual are a welcome sign of the Church’s compassion.—J.B.F.

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