QUAERITUR: cremation

From a reader:

Father..I’m making end of life arrangements. I am a cradle Catholic.  We have a columbarium in our ____ and it all makes sense but…cremation freaks me out. Do you think Our Lord will be angry at me if I have my body cremated? All this hesitation comes from my childhood.

I am glad you are making some arrangements now.  That is the responsible thing to do.

We affirm that to bury the dead is a corporal work of mercy.  We also affirm that the bodies of the deceased baptized are worthy of respect because people are made in the image and likeness of God and have great dignity and because they were temples of the Holy Spirit.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

2301 [... ]  The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.

In the ancient Roman cremation was very common, but inhumation (burial) was more common for the Jews.  Early Christians followed the Jewish practice more than the pagan.  In the case of plague, however, and some other situations, cremation was abandoned.

However, the practice of cremation was rekindled in modern times.  The Church forbade it since it seemed like a denial of the teaching of bodily resurrection.  The 1917 Code of Canon Law funeral rites for the cremated.  In 1963, however, the prohibition was lifted.  The 1983 Code of Canon Law allows cremation but inhumation is strongly recommended.  However, if there is a way in which the cremation is a statement in some way against the teaching of bodily resurrection, cremation would be prohibited.  I don’t know what censures there would be.  We need the Canonical Defender!

So, in short, cremation is permitted by the Church.

Absolutely prohibited as in wrong wrong wrong is the scattering of ashes.

It is understandable that Catholics would have a… hesitation about cremation.

That said, friend, I don’t think you need to fear that the Lord will be unhappy with you for doing something the Church allows, so long as you have striven to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this life.

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35 Responses to QUAERITUR: cremation

  1. Slappo says:

    Speaking of scattering of ashes, how do you handle when a parent puts in his will that he wants his ashes to be scattered and you are the executor of the will? I told my father I objected to that part of the will and would not be able to execute that paragraph, so he edited the paragraph and made it state that he desired the back-up executor to fulfill that particular wish. I won’t participate in or attend such a scattering ceremony, but do I have any further obligations?

    [Every situation is different, but they are all super-charged with emotions. There isn't one way to do this. I think that you have to stress, calmly the Church's teaching and get the priest or bishop's support if possible. However, I don't really want this to turn into "What if A?", "What if B?", "What if... what if ... what if...?" combox digression.]

  2. Brad says:

    I have demurred already about taking part in scattering a family member’s ashes. When told it wasn’t my own body at stake, I just said that the act of doing so to my own ashes or any other human’s was against my Church’s “laws” (layman-ology) and also my own conscience. Get someone else to do it. Full stop.

    I was sad to see the author of Angela’s Ashes had his own scattered across Ireland. Let’s all dedicate to him an Ave Maria. Perhaps it will help him and and he will return the favor from wherever he may be.

  3. JuliB says:

    I’m glad it’s allowed now. God made us from dust, so Him doing so for the Resurrection shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve seen that some monks are wrapped in shrouds and placed directly into the earth after death. That would be the best option, IMO, but I believe code prohibits that in most states.

  4. Father Bartoloma says:

    Father Zuhlsdorf,
    Wasn’t there a diocese in Italy that a couple of years ago or so permitted the scattering of cremains? I vaguely remember reading something on the internet and it shocked me quite a bit.

  5. amenamen says:

    @ However, the practice of cremation was rekindled in modern times

    Rekindled?

  6. frjim4321 says:

    I don’t think it was mentioned above as I scanned the post but perhaps it should be stipulated that when a Catholic is cremated the recommended practice is for the cremated remains to be interred somehow, either in a grave or a columbarium. Keeping the urn on the mantle is not to be encouraged. However, I see the practice more regularly nowadays.

    The funeral rites with cremated remains are the same as for a funeral with the body in the casket with the exception that there is no mini-pall that is placed over the urn.

  7. The Cobbler says:

    “When told it wasn’t my own body at stake…”
    As if you thought it was for the body’s own sake that it mattered! Do irreligious folk really think religious folk are so dumb they can’t see that a dead body is dead? (Do they have no idea that the point of a Saviour is to deal with facts like death?) I believe it was Kahn Noonien Singh who said, “Don’t insult my intelligence.” (Ironically, in reply to the question, “Genesis what’s that?” Ah, Kirk… shoot, I’m quoting him there too! Ah well, he’s a quoteworthy villain; and a relevant one, considering that Eugenics ain’t dead, just its name dishonored.)

  8. yatzer says:

    Coming from a background that doesn’t see a problem with scattering ashes, what IS the problem? Even if a body is buried, that doesn’t mean sometime in the future the earth there won’t be mixed around, so to speak. What difference does it make? I’m not arguing and will follow the Church’s directives, but I don’t understand and would like to.

  9. Trevor says:

    Yatzer,

    Since Canon Law applies to Catholics, I believe it presumes that the remains of the deceased will be interred in a consecrated place. Sometimes this is a Catholic cemetery, sometimes it’s an plot in a public cemetery or columbarium.

    However, the reason the Church doesn’t permit scattering of the ashes, is because the body is sacred (even after death). When God assumed human nature, he anointed it with His divinity, and consecrated even that which was most abhorrent to our humanity (death). So we should treat the bodies of the deceased as if they are sacred. Placing the remains in a fixed place is a sign that we still believe the body to be sacred. We don’t simply let ashes be scattered, carried away by the wind, not nothing exactly where the sacred remains of our loved ones end up.

    This is part of my reasoning why we shouldn’t scatter ashes. I’m sure others could provide good reasons (e.g. It better signifies our communion with the saints). However, we should also remember that scattering the ashes doesn’t provide an obstacle to God for ressurecting the dead. He’ll be able to re-assemble our bodies regardless of how much they’ve broken down or been scattered. This is especially true of canonized saints, who tend to have their relics scattered all over the place. (They’re really the exception to the rule. The Church still sees their remains as sacred, but thought in the past that it would be better for the faithful to be exposed to their relics, and thus allowed them to be scattered. I don’t know if the Church is still willing to do this since the Council. I haven’t seen many first-class relics of modern saints.)

  10. jmgazzoli says:

    In re Khan: do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold? It is very cold in space.

  11. jmgazzoli says:

    Continuing on the theme of Wrath of Khan, would it be permitted to shoot a coffin out of a torpedo tube onto a planet affected by the Genesis Project?

  12. Cristero says:

    WAAAAAAY off topic, but the comments above are why “The Wrath Of Khan” is the best Star Trek movie EVER.

    And why Kirk is the best captain.

  13. asophist says:

    Why does the Church discourage something that she permits? Why does the Church permit something that she discourages? This does not make sense to me. It sounds like the same mealy-mouthed approach that is charicteristic of many of the documents of Vatican II.

  14. bookworm says:

    My husband, whom I sadly seem to be completely unable to convince to return to the practice of the faith, insists that when his time comes (hopefully not soon) he wants to be cremated and have his ashes scattered over a body of water, preferably the Mediterranean (where he served in the Navy) but if that’s not feasible he says he’d settle for the Atlantic or even Lake Michigan. I have told him that the Church forbids scattering ashes but he doesn’t care.

    I discovered a few years ago that Navy veterans are entitled to burial at sea at no cost to their families. The casket or urn (if the body has been cremated) is taken out to sea during a vessel’s scheduled deployment and ceremonially committed to the deep by the ship’s chaplain. The website where I discovered this information included a link to the Archdiocese of Baltimore indicating that the Church permits burial of ashes at sea as long as the ashes are kept intact in an urn or container and NOT scattered. (I believe the archdiocesan document in question was written in response to inquiries after the “burial” of JFK Jr.) I wonder if this would be an acceptable way of carrying out his wishes, if it came to that, without violating Church law?

  15. Imrahil says:

    Dear @yatzter, the reason why scattering of the ashes is forbidden is rather the same as that why cremation once was – it is an expression of non-Catholic convictions, in this case, “return to nature”. Note of course the problem always comes from what is expressed, not what is effected; there is no problem for the resurrection.

    I know somebody, who, (as far as I know) not so much practising his Catholic faith, decades after the permission of cremation, still rather fearfully takes some pain to prevent lest anybody “should burn my body, since I haven’t been a Catholic for the sake that someone burn my body when it comes to it”. This is some of the places where the words “voice of the people” come into my mind.

    Some of the problems I still have with cremation, after being allowed by the Church, are:
    1. the remaining problem of signification. After all, a graveyard is called “God’s acre” in German.
    2. It seems to involve the statement “I am not worthy of a grave and tombstone and the people’s memories”, which you are. (Likewise, the chief problem with lay burial-ministers is that a Catholic, even if not practising, is worthy enough of a priest to pray for him, not being treated like a piece of labour that unfortunately must be done somehow.)
    3. It seems to involve the statement “let my inheritors rather have the money that spend it on a more expensive burial” – which is worthy to be fought against. I’d even think a honorful burial of a poor person a worthy reason for beggary; it is a work of mercy, after all.

    However, I don’t want to put my conscience on others.

  16. When my father passed away about 10 years ago, he had asked to be cremated and buried (he was not Catholic). But my father was a big-boned fellow, and he had more ashes than could fit in the urn, so the funeral home director put the remainder in seven hideous smaller urns to give “take-home dads” for his seven children.

    I was aghast. A man who had specifically requested to be buried had part of his remains parcelled out as house ornaments. I, and three of my siblings, insisted our trinkets be put in a bag buried with the urn. The other three siblings kept theirs.

    This goes to show that if you choose to be cremated and buried, you must be careful that your wishes are actually fulfilled.

  17. The strict law of the Orthodox Church is to disallow a funeral for a person who will undergo cremation. Some bishops, including my own, allows reluctantly the funeral service with the body intact, and with a later cremation. Under no circumstances may the charred remains be brought into the church. I had to deal with this situation this past week. Lord have mercy. persanlly I find cremation a repugnant practice, but then we often do not uphold the respect for life very well either. Seems to be part of the same non-Christian attitude so pervasive today.

  18. LisaP. says:

    I enjoyed reading in “Why Do Catholics Do That?” about Catholic burials and funerals. The author’s contention (which seems valid to me) is that historically a Catholic funeral doesn’t just not have a eulogy, it doesn’t have things like embalming. I’m very fond of the idea of a cardboard box, and since I never wear makeup in life I don’t know why I’d want to be buried under a ton of it.

    It seems to me that like with so many other things, instead of simply honoring the dead and respecting the remains (which has been culturally valued ever since before Antigone) we either completely disrespect the body by throwing it to the wind as if it didn’t matter, or we dress it up like a doll and pump it with chemicals to falsely preserve it for as long as we can. Both impulses, to hold on to it forever and to throw it away like trash, are disordered. It’s like the tendency to have only one child but make the child the queen of the household; or to scorn moralism but tsk tsk anyone who doesn’t recycle. Weird world.

  19. LisaP. says:

    I mean to hold on to the body in a pickled form in this world, of course, not in a glorified form in the next, which is perfectly well ordered.

  20. The best situation for any Christian (Catholic or no) is to be buried in holy ground with other Christians, so that all our bodies will be together in fellowship in death as in life, waiting for the Resurrection all together until our souls can be reunited with our bodies (and to buried facing east to be ready for the Resurrection, so that we will resurrect into our bodies facing God).

    Cremation is good for reasons of space, disease, etc. But the situation in regard to holy ground, and often even to facing east in a columbarium, is pretty much the same. But it’s less of a sign, probably, just like not being buried facing east is less of a sign.

    Having the ashes scattered on the wind is what you traditionally do to vampires, witches, Koshchei the Undying, etc. to make sure they don’t come back. How this generation has transmuted a symbol of horror and disgust for someone the earth doesn’t want to take, to a symbol of happy-clappy oneness with the earth, is pretty bizarre.

  21. irishgirl says:

    I had two relatives (uncle and aunt) who were cremated, and their ashes were placed in a columbarium built under their parish church.
    Regarding ‘scattering ashes’, a friend from my first job had her ashes scattered off the coast of Cape Cod. Her husband told me some time later that he had to do it ‘on the sneak’, because it seemed that it was a popular spot for that to be done, and there was a guard making sure that it wasn’t. So the husband waited till the guard’s back was turned, and he did it quickly.

  22. moon1234 says:

    The best practice would be to immitate our Lord. He was BURIED and on the third day he rose again. If our Lord wanted us to be cremated as the normal method of dealing with our bodies after death, he would have instructed his followers to do so. As Father stated in his post, both customs existed at the time of Christ.

    The very fact that cremation was prohibited for most of recorded Christian history (with the exception for disease) should inform us that it is NOT a wise practice. It is amazing to me that in 1917 you would be excommunicated for attempting a cremation, but less than 100 years later cremation is a fully legitimate choice? I find it very hard to believe that 100% of Catholics fully believe in the resurrection (look at the belief in the real presence for similar statistic.).

  23. BaedaBenedictus says:

    “Absolutely prohibited as in wrong wrong wrong is the scattering of ashes.”

    For now, Father. For now.

    My mom wants to have her ashes scattered, and to my objections she responds that the Church reversed herself on cremation after so many centuries, she’ll eventually reverse herself on scattering ashes too.

    That’s the problem when arrogant prelates casually change Church laws and capriciously dismantle traditions. It gives the impression that everything, including Church teaching, is up for grabs.

  24. Cathy says:

    Call me simple, but I always think, do not do to cremains what you would not do to a body intact at burial. For example, you would not cut the body apart so that every relative would have a piece of the body – don’t do that with cremains. You would not cut the body into pieces and scatter it, don’t do that with cremains. I’ve seen jewelry, even, made out of cremains. To me, it seems that what some do with cremains seems New Age and counter-intuitive to Catholic teaching. I am also horrified regarding news pieces where crematoriums are found to have bodies in storage which have not been cremated, yet relatives have been given ashes, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/feb/18/matthewengel.

  25. Ellen says:

    What about me? The idea of burial gives me the shivers and cremation is worse. Yes, I know I’ll be dead but still……

    I’m tempted to donate my body to The Body Farm at the University of Tennessee.

  26. PostCatholic says:

    “For example, you would not cut the body apart so that every relative would have a piece of the body – don’t do that with cremains.”

    Then again, the late Austro-Hungarian pretender kept with tradition had his body buried in one city and his heart interred in another. I’m sure the original idea was to give two parts of an empire a place to remember their deceased royalty.

  27. Denita says:

    I’m glad this was posted. I had been considering cremation for financial reasons.
    And, speaking of the Wrath of Khan, that’s one reason why I don’t want “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes ( or any other instrument ) played at my funeral. Everytime I hear it I think of Spock’s funeral. Not that I don’t like the movie. I love Star Trek. My favorite is VI (Undiscovered Country).

  28. Considering the number of martyrs that were burned to death, it seems odd that the Church would have ever prohibited cremation.

  29. dcs says:

    The thing that bothers me about cremation is not that the body is burned but that the bones are also crushed.

  30. Cath says:

    At my cousins funeral the priest, during his homily, spoke of how the family was going to scatter his ashes. I was shocked. I even heard my mother later say (when I told her that in the Church that wasn’t allowed) that if one of her children requested their ashes be scattered, well that was what she would do. She took issue with the fact that I would not do the same for my children. Hundreds of people at this funeral listening to the priest speak encouragingly of scattering the remains, why would you think the Church wouldn’t allow it?

  31. Maria says:

    Sorry to sidetrack on here a bit, but is it a sin to go against the (next of kin) deceased persons wishes if they are not Catholic, and give them a Catholic Burial, or are they not in fact even entitled to a Catholic Burial anyway?

    Would this not be a Corporal act of Mercy if they wanted to belive in God but simply could not?

    I have tried to understand what the answer might be by reading these posts but I am still confused.

    Hope its ok to ask.

    Maria

  32. moon1234 says:

    Would this not be a Corporal act of Mercy if they wanted to belive in God but simply could not?

    I can only think of a few instances here:
    1. A baptized child not yet reached the age of reason
    2. A person with a mental handicap that can not understand (rare)

    All others make a conscience choice to believe or not. I think invincible ignorance of God=willful avoidance. I have not yet met anyone who did not meet one of the two above stipulations who could not understand God.

    I think you mean to do good for a person where it is not warranted. A Catholic funeral is for a Catholic who believes what the Church teaches. All others take their chances with God one on one. We either do what go commanded and follow the structure he put in place for us sinners (better chance to get to heaven) or we take our chances on our own (remember than camel fitting through the eye of needle?)

    Cremation is just wrong on all Christian accounts when it is electivly chosen. I can’t think of ANY reason why it would be preferable over burial. Cost is not an option. A pine box is legal, cheap and we have religious who make and sell them. A cremation is MORE expensive than that.

    My Aunt wanted to choose cremation on her death bed because she had gambled all her life savings away and could not pay for the funeral and did not want to burden her family (she had no children). She was adament until her father (94 years old) came in and said “Absolutely not! Your mother would never allow that! Now grandma was a very devout Catholic. The money was available in the the end, but it took my 94 year old grandfather to be the leader of the family and say NO that it was not acceptable.

    How many others have a patriarch in their family that softly leads until called upon? Why have the leaders in the Church in so many places been silent for so long? I sure hope Pope Benedict lives a long life and has the opportunity to promote more ardent theologians to Bishop and Cardinal. We need them!

  33. Prof. Basto says:

    Regarding cremation, it is important to add that, whenever it is done, the Church’s directives are to the effect that, whenever possible, the resulting ashes be buried in the grave. In that case, the funeral rites at the grave are to be performed over the urn containing the ashes. In that case, the urn serves as a sort of casket.

    The Church therefore, reprobates practices such as keeping the ashes of the cremated person at home, or, the even worse practice of scattering the ashes, be it in the sea, or in the soil (scattering the ashes above ground), and, worse yet, over different places.

    A Church or Cemetery is the proper resting place for the body of a Christian, particularly if the cemetery is a Catholic one or has been blessed by the Church. Therefore, even when cremation (not signifying denial in the ressurection of the body) is performed, the Church strongly reccomends burial of the ashes, in this case the ashes standing for all stands and purposes, for the body.

  34. Anonymous Seminarian says:

    The Old Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) bears reading on this subject. It closes with “In conclusion, it must be remembered that there is nothing directly opposed to any dogma of the Church in the practice of cremation, and that, if ever the leaders of this sinister movement so far control the governments of the world as to make this custom universal, it would not be a lapse in the faith confided to her were she obliged to conform.” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04481c.htm

  35. Mike says:

    This previous post is interesting, especially a SSPX claims that cremation, until 1917, was universally banned by the Church. I think cremation has more problems than straight forward burial. Go with a simple coffin, like the Popes.