Can Catholics be Cremated?

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What does the Church teach about Cremation?

Witnessed by simple men and women, the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth confirmed the hope deep in the human heart that we will not be extinguished after death, that there is an eternal future for both our body and our soul.

Jesus’ unique human claim about the resurrection of the body is the truth that underlies all of the Church’s teachings on cremation. Because Christ has shown us this human destiny in Him, it is fitting that the Church requires that the deceased body be treated with prayerful reverence and great dignity in recognition of its glorious future.

The Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington exist for this purpose: to be a prayerful resting place memorializing the existence of deceased men and women who now await the resurrection of the body in Christ.

Cremation and Catholics Today

Many Catholics have questions about the Church’s teachings on the growing practice of cremation. This is understandable since before 1963, the Church insisted that Catholics follow only the manner of Christ’s burial by either entombing or burying the body. Even today, the Church acknowledges that “cremation does not hold the same value” as this traditional way of allowing the body to go gently back into the earth (Order of Christian Funerals, Reflections, p. 14).

The revised Code of Canon Law of 1983 helps Catholics understand that the 1963 lifting of the prohibition forbidding Catholics to cremate their deceased loved one’s remains was never intended as an endorsement: “The Church earnestly recommends 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" (Canon 1176). The Church now allows for cremation of the body, providing that family members making that decision are not doing so because they fear the body is lost forever and has no future together in Christ with the immortal soul.

Treatment of Cremated Remains of the Body

Cremation of the body quickly reduces the body to about four to ten pounds of bone fragments. The Church requires that these remains of the body be placed in a respectful vessel and treated in the exact same way that a family would treat a body in a casket.

Since the human body has an eternal destiny in any form, the Church requires that cremated remains of a body be buried or entombed immediately after the Funeral in the same timely manner as a body. Cremated remains of a loved one are not to be scattered, kept at home or divided into other vessels among family members, just as it is clear that these practices would desecrate a body in a casket. The Church allows for burial at sea, providing that the cremated remains of the body are buried in a heavy container and not scattered.

All of these teachings on the treatment of cremated remains of the body correspond with the Christian’s foundational belief in eternal life—both body and soul—in Jesus Christ among the Communion of Saints.

When to Cremate

The Church clearly prefers and urges that the full body be present for the funeral rites (OCF, 414). The Catholic Funeral rites are sacred acts that help bereaved families on their journey over several days through mourning, prayer, consolation and separation from their deceased loved one, in the company of friends and neighbors. “The body that lies in death recalls the personal story of faith, the past relationships, and the continued spiritual presence of the deceased person” (OCF, Reflections, p. 11).

While the decision to cremate the body immediately after death would seem to help move this painful journey along more quickly, it can actually hinder a healthy mourning process by thwarting a family’s ability to fully confront the mystery of death in the presence of a body that can be recognized in love. Current death care industry trends show an increase in the practice of immediate cremation before the family can have a “viewing” of the body in death. At the same time, there has also been an increase in the need for bereavement counseling and aftercare.

Many funeral homes provide for a simple embalming and a regular casket for rent during the viewing and funeral. Purchase of a special shell or cremation casket is usually available for this same purpose.

However, if cremation must take place immediately after death, the Archdiocese of Washington allows for the cremated remains of the body to be present in church during the Funeral Mass provided that they are reverently buried or entombed afterwards.

The Catholic Funeral Rites in the Presence of Cremated Remains of the Body

The sacred Catholic Funeral Rites are communally prayed in three parts: the Vigil Rite; the Funeral Liturgy; and, the Rite of Committal. While the rites all assume the presence of the full body, some adaptations in the traditional texts can now be made if the body has already been cremated. The rituals are meant to take place in sequence to console the family and provide prayerful sustenance to the soul of the deceased. “Ritual action is especially important at times of greatest mystery, for events that we find difficult to apprehend because they are too beautiful or too sorrowful” (OCF, Reflections, p. 12).

After the Funeral, the cremated remains of the body should be reverently buried or entombed in a cemetery or mausoleum (OCF, Reflections, p. 15).

The Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington treats cremated remains with the same prayerful reverence as the full body remains. Families of the deceased may elect to have cremated remains interred in ground burial sections or entombed above ground in a niche.

Talk with a Priest, Family and Friends

Faith in the resurrection of the body is a gift. If you find that your faith is tested in the face of conversations about death and burial, know that you are not alone in your fears about this great mystery of human life.

“I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:25-26). Jesus’ question to Martha, distraught over the death of her brother Lazarus, is posed to every person in every age!

“Do you believe this?”

In the face of a family death, Martha sought the wisdom, consolation and presence of Jesus Christ. Today, our parish priests are here “in persona Christi” to continue his life-giving mission on behalf of both the living and the dead.

In making cremation decisions, talk with a priest, your family and friends. Pray for the gifts of wisdom, faith, hope and love. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, God’s only begotten Son has come to dwell among us in the life of the Church. Draw near!

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