Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
New Options for Catholics
In 1997 the Holy See granted permission
to U.S. bishops to allow funeral Masses in the presence of cremated
remains. This practice had been available in Canada and a few U.S.
dioceses for some time. In this Update we'll look at the
reasons behind the permission and the ritual changes that will soon
be available in many U.S. dioceses. We'll also explore why the Church
continues to prefer burial over cremation.
Before looking at the particulars of the
cremation changes, it is important to understand why they are necessary
in the first place. The following true example from my parish might
help. I was present not long ago while the parish said our good-byes
to a beloved member whose family had chosen cremation. Ever since
retirement, Mr. McFarland and his wife would spend a good portion
of winter in Florida, away from the long Michigan winters. When
he suffered a heart attack and died while in Florida, the family
had to decide how best to deal with the situation.
With family, friends and parish all back
in Michigan, there was no question where the funeral needed to be.
Yet from a practical point of view, particularly for financial reasons,
it was not feasible to ship his body. Cremation was a more viable
option. The family knew that the Catholic Church has permitted cremation
since the 1960's. However, they were not aware of the liturgical
limitations resulting from their choice.
As his daughter related to me later, an
uneasy feeling began when the pastor told the family that when their
dad's cremated remains arrived from Florida they should gather at
the cemetery for the Church's Rite of Committal. After the burial
of the cremated remains, they would gather a few weeks later at
Sacred Heart Church to celebrate a memorial Mass for their father.
The pastor explained to them that the Catholic
Church did not allow cremated remains to be present in church during
the celebration of a funeral liturgy. The Catholic Church has always
had the utmost respect and reverence for the human body and the
prayers of the funeral liturgy reflect this.
The memorial Mass for Mr. McFarland was
a peaceful celebration of his life, a good opportunity for family,
friends and parish community to gather, to remember, to pray, to
return this loved one to God. And yet there was something missing;
some part of it did not feel quite right to many present.
Similar stories abound from throughout
the United States. For some families, the inability of the local
parish to hold a funeral Mass caused further grief during an already
difficult time. Many pastors and parish members felt frustrated
at the parish's inability to minister fully to families in their
hour of need. Some families even felt a sense of alienation from
the Church when denied a funeral Mass with the cremated remains
All of these situations add up to a real
pastoral concern, especially as the preference for cremation continues
to grow across the country. That is why the U.S. bishops, aware
of the situation and sensitive to the pastoral needs of Catholics,
requested permission from Rome to allow funeral rites, including
the Eucharist, to be celebrated in the presence of cremated remains.
The permission that was granted spells
out the changes allowed in cases of necessity. These changes will
be discussed in greater detail later in this Update. Although
the Church still strongly encourages burial or entombment of a body
over cremation, many Catholic parishes will occasionally be celebrating
funerals in the presence of cremated remains.
Catholics and cremation
The Catholic Church's practice of burial
goes back to early Christian days. A strong belief in the body as
the temple of the Holy Spirit, as well as the belief in the resurrection
of the body, support the Church's continued reverence for the human
body. From early Christian days cremation was viewed as a pagan
practice and a denial of the doctrine of the Resurrection. That's
why cremation was expressly forbidden by the Catholic Church until
In 1963, an Instruction from the Holy Office
(now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) lifted the
ban on cremation by allowing it in certain circumstances provided
that the reasons for choosing cremation were not contrary to Christian
belief. However, burial of the body was clearly to be preferred.
No allowance was made for any prayer or ritual to be used with the
cremated remains. In other words, all services were to be in the
presence of the body of the deceased, with cremation allowed only
In the revised funeral rites of 1969, Ordo
Exsequiarum, mandated by Vatican II, a further step was taken
to allow for the Committal Rite to take place at the crematorium
or grave site: "Funeral rites are to be granted to those who have
chosen cremation, unless there is evidence that their choice was
dictated by anti-Christian motives....The funeral is to be celebrated...in
a way that clearly expresses the Church's preference for burying
the dead...that forestalls any danger of scandalizing or shocking
the faithful" (#15). The presumption was that the funeral Mass would
be celebrated in the presence of the body with cremation held off
In the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon
Law, the traditional practice was reinforced. "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"
The further revised funeral rites, Order
of Christian Funerals, in use since 1989, maintain this tradition
of preference for burial of the body: "Since in Baptism the body
was marked with the seal of the Trinity and became the temple of
the Holy Spirit, Christians respect and honor the bodies of the
dead and the places where they rest..." (#19).
A threefold ritual
The Order of Christian Funerals prescribes
three separate and ideally sequential rites to celebrate the journey
of the deceased from this life to the next. This movement or progression
of rites can be helpful to the mourners going through this period
of separation and letting go of their loved one.
The principal celebration is the funeral
liturgy, which is typically a Mass. Two smaller celebrations also
take place. The vigil for the deceased is a short prayer service
during the time following death and before the funeral liturgy.
It usually takes place at the funeral home. The rite of committal
is a short prayer service at the cemetery, ideally beside the open
grave or place of interment. Both of these short services include
Scripture, prayers and possibly songs. The ideal sequence of these
three funeral rites is vigil, funeral Mass, then committal.
Up to this time, with cremated remains
banned from church, the only way to solve the problems created by
immediate cremation (cremation before the funeral) was to reverse
the order of these rituals, that is, have the rite of committal
(burial) at the cemetery first and then have a memorial Mass. However,
committing the remains for burial prior to the funeral liturgy often
does not satisfy the need for the mourners to have something of
the deceased present when gathering for the final farewell. The
prayers of the funeral liturgy praise and thank God for the gift
of this person's life whom we are now commending to God, as well
as being a source of hope for all of the living.
In the United States up until 1997, the
Order of Christian Funerals clearly indicated that if cremation
had been chosen, cremated remains were not to be brought into church
for the funeral Mass. Even now this is permitted only in cases where
special circumstances warrant it and the bishop approves. The reasoning
is that the funeral rites are intended to honor the body of the
It was the body which felt the waters of
Baptism, was marked with the oil of salvation and nourished by the
Bread of Life. The sprinkling of the casket with holy water and
the draping with the white pall are reminders of Baptism. The body
is the incarnation of the presence of God in the world, the temple
of the Holy Spirit. There is a substantial difference between the
body of the deceased and cremated remains. The Church's thinking
has rightly been that we cannot just substitute one for the other
and expect our rituals and prayers to carry the same meaning.
Yet ashes and bone chips that remain after
cremation are somethingthere is a real connection between
them and the body. So why not have them present to remind us of
the one whose life we are celebrating? As sacramental people we
need the "stuff" of the senses around us to help us get in touch
with the deeper reality. After all, these cremated remains bear
the imprint of the first creation when they were fashioned from
dust. The traditional Ash Wednesday formula says it well: "Remember
that you are dust and to dust you shall return." Catholics can easily
make the connection between these remains and the body of the person
they knew and loved.
There is no problem with this if cremation
is to take place after the funeral Mass. A rite of committal for
cremains (cremated remains) is provided as an alternative in the
current funeral rite. The difficulty arises when cremation is done
before the funeralas in the earlier case of the retired Michigan
man who died in Florida. Yet in dioceses whose bishops choose not
to allow funeral Masses in the presence of cremated remains, a reversal
of the rites is one solution for a less-than-ideal situation.
Here is how that might work for a diocese
that will not be making the changes. For example, a person dies
a few days after a critical auto accident far from home. In the
days before death, the family determines that cremation will be
the only feasible option. A vigil rite could be celebrated at the
deathbed using the final commendation (a prayer of farewell) over
the body at this time. This is the final commendation that is usually
at the end of the funeral Mass, asking the Lord to accept the deceased
into paradise. Then, after the body is cremated, the rite of committal
would be used at the place of burial.
Following the committal all would come
to church for the funeral liturgy, without the body present.
Recognizing that this reordering of the
funeral rites is less than ideal is why many bishops will use the
new permission to allow cremains at the funeral Mass and retain
the funeral rite's threefold sequence.
One reason that Catholics in the United
States need an exception to the standard funeral rite is that the
choice of cremation as a means of final disposition is growing each
year. Catholic Cemetery magazine (May 1997) reports that
recent studies have shown that more than 20 percent of U.S. deaths
end in cremation. A local funeral director indicated the figure
to be as high as 25 percent in the metro Detroit area. Other sources
indicate that the percentage is closer to 50 percent in the states
of Florida and California. The national average is expected to rise
to 33 percent within the next 15 years.
The reasons for choosing cremation are
several, but cost seems to be one of the biggest. Immediate cremation,
that is, within 48 hours of death, without the use of funeral home
facilities for a wake, can cost as little as one fourth the cost
of the usual procedure. Obviously, if cremation is the last step,
that is, following the funeral Mass with the body present, there
is not a substantial cost difference. When death occurs at a location
significantly distant from where the wake and burial will take place,
though, cremation before the remains are transported may be the
only affordable choice.
Hygienic reasons can also apply. If the
person dies from an infectious disease, cremation might be considered
safer. Some may make the choice just because of simplicity or ecological
concerns. It is easier to handle a small box or vessel than a casket.
Cremains take less space in a world becoming ever more conscious
of responsible land use.
The Church's decision to allow cremation
recognizes the fact that sometimes it best meets the needs of the
family. On the other hand, the Church continues to discourage immediate
cremation. Grieving in the presence of the body over several days
can help people to deal with their loss.
Mourners need sufficient time to remember
and celebrate the life of the deceased; to begin to grow accustomed
to the absence of a loved one. The Church wants to encourage families
to take the time needed to say their good-byes, to encourage the
The new cremation regulation, dated March
21, 1997, was granted by the Holy See as an addition, or indult,
to the Order of Christian Funerals. It permits U.S. Latin-rite
bishops to decide whether to allow a person's cremated remains at
Catholic funeral Masses in their dioceses. The permission is to
be granted on a case-by-case basis. It is also clear in the indult
that when cremation is chosen, "it is greatly to be preferred that
the funeral liturgy take place in the presence of the body of the
deceased prior to its cremation." But when cremation has already
occurred a bishop can grant permission for a properly sequenced
ritual: vigil, then funeral Mass, then committal rite.
What will be different?
If the Ordinary (bishop) of the diocese
has determined it permissible to celebrate the funeral liturgy in
the presence of cremated remains, it is to be carried out in the
following manner. The remains of the body are to be placed in a
"worthy vessel" and placed on a table in the spot usually occupied
by the coffin. The vessel may be placed there before the Mass begins
or it may be carried in the entrance procession.
The paschal candle may be placed in a prominent
position just as it is when a body is present. Prayers chosen are
to be those which do not make specific reference to the body of
the deceased. Explicit baptismal references are omitted in the presence
of cremated remains. It was the body that was washed in Baptism,
not these remains, so care has been taken to make this distinction
In typical funerals, the casket-enclosed
body is sprinkled with holy water while the following prayer is
said: "In the waters of Baptism N. died with Christ and rose with
him to new life. May he/she now share with him eternal glory." The
casket is then draped with the pall, a white cloth which recalls
the white garment of Baptism.
A sprinkling of the cremains with holy
water is accompanied by a prayer that does not directly stress Baptism:
"As our brother/sister N. has died with the Lord, so may he/she
live with him in glory." That prayer plus the absence of the white
pall are the most significant liturgical changes resulting from
the new regulation.
A small change comes in the prayer of committal
of cremated remains. Earthly remains is substituted for body:
"In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life
through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother/sister
N., and we commit his/her earthly remains to the ground [or the
deep or their resting place] [earth to earth], ashes to ashes, dust
It is optional to incense the cremains
at the funeral liturgy, just as it is optional to incense a body.
Care of cremated remains
The cremation instructions call attention
to the care taken of the cremated remains. They should be treated
with the same respect we give to the body of the deceased. The remains
are to be placed in a worthy vessel which then is carried and transported
with the same respect and attention given to a casket carrying a
Their final disposition is equally important,
say the instructions: "The cremated remains should be buried in
a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium [a cemetery vault
designed for urns containing ashes of the dead]. The practice 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 instructions also state that, if at all possible,
the place of entombment should be marked with a plaque or stone
memorializing the deceased.
To love as Jesus did
The rituals of the Catholic Church adapt
to the cultural needs of its members. Sometimes the outward rites
change, but basic beliefs and values are not sacrificed. The Church
continues to prefer and encourage the faithful to bury the bodies
of their departed loved ones. However, if cremation is chosen for
worthy motives, the Church wishes to support the faithful in honoring
the life and memory of the departed.