Cremation and what the church teaches
By RENEE WEBB, Globe editor
August 9, 2007
For many years cremation was not allowed in the Catholic Church. While it is
permitted today, cremation is an option that is neither promoted nor preferred
by the church.
"Most Catholics do not have a good understanding of what the church
teaches (in relation to cremation)," noted Father Bruce Lawler, interim
director of worship for the diocese and pastor at St. Mary Church in Storm Lake.
In the past, the reason cremation was not allowed was two-fold.
"Cremation or the burning of bodies was a practice that pagans did, so
therefore Christians wanted nothing to do with it. But more importantly it was
based on our belief in the resurrection of the body," explained Father
Lawler. "When Christ returns, our very bodies are raised from the grave to
live forever in the same state as the glorified body of the risen Jesus."
Cremation was not considered because Christians imminently expected the
return of Christ and to turn the body into ash was contrary to that belief.
"It changed basically because society became more tolerant in the 60s
and 70s. It became more common, oftentimes for practical reasons - transporting
ashes is easier than transporting bodies if a death occurred away from the place
where burial would occur," said Father Lawler.
Others have cited financial reasons for choosing cremation.
"I think those are coupled with a decreased awareness of the church's
understanding of the resurrection of the body," he said. "We
oftentimes don't consider that a great teaching of ours."
The one entry in the Code of Canon Law that refers to cremation, 1176,
paragraph 3, states: "The church earnestly recommends that the pious custom
of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the church does
not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian
The earlier Code of Canon Law, from 1917, forbid cremation since in the past
it had been done by those who rejected Catholic teaching on the resurrection of
the body. That ban was lifted in 1963 by an instruction from the Vatican which
allowed cremation if it was done for innocent motives and for grave reasons.
While the ban on cremation was lifted in the 1960s, the church did not allow
the cremated remains to be brought into the church building. If cremation
occurred before the funeral Mass, they could not have a funeral Mass with the
cremated remains. That changed in the 1980s. At that time the cremated remains
were allowed in the church and the church no longer required special reasons for
doing so as long as it was not done for reasons contrary to Catholic teaching.
Liturgically, Father Lawler noted if cremation happens before the funeral Mass
though cremated remains are brought into the church they are treated differently
than a body. For instance, the remains are not sprinkled and incensed and some
of the prayer text is changed.
The 1980s, he added, was also the decade when the number of cremations for
Catholics began to rise.
"And we've seen more as time goes on because once people see it, they
tend to opt for it," he said.
If cremation is selected, parishioners should know that the Catholic Church
prefers that the body to be brought to the church for a funeral Mass and then
later the body is cremated.
"That is strongly preferred, but not frequently followed," noted
Another source for Catholic teaching on cremation comes from the Order of
Christian Funerals, Appendix 3, Cremation. It addresses such things as respect
given to cremated remains.
Msgr. R. Mark Duchaine, vicar general of the diocese and pastor at St. Mary
Church in Mapleton, questions whether cremains (cremated remains) always receive
"What concerns me is that cremains (cremated remains) are not always
treated with the same degree of respect as an intact human body, probably
because, having been reduced to bone fragments and ash and placed in an urn,
cremains no longer have a human appearance. And yet, these are the remains of a
loved one: a husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter," he said.
He said he sometimes wonders what happens to cremains prior to interment or
"I have had occasions where many months passed between cremation and
burial. During that time period, the question must be asked as to who has
custody of the cremains and where/how the cremains are being stored," said
Msgr. Duchaine. "I suspect that there are occasions when cremains are kept
on a shelf in the family garage or in the bottom bureau drawer, neither of which
is suitable or respectful."
Treating the cremains with respect includes the use of a worthy vessel, the
manner in which they are carried, the care and attention to appropriate
transport and the final disposition.
The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum
or columbarium in a timely fashion - preferably right after the funeral Mass.
Some cemeteries have special, smaller plots for burial of cremains.
The practice of scattering cremated remains at sea or on land as well as
keeping cremated remains in the home are not considered reverent disposition,
which is required by the church.
Msgr. Duchaine said there is a need to better educate the people regarding
this matter, and that funeral directors should be better prepared and motivated
to guide the survivors in regards to the proper reverence due a human body that
has been cremated.
All in all, Father Lawler said cremation is a "bad idea for people who
believe in the resurrection of the body. There is a strong symbol to the body
and it's a strong affirmation of our faith to lay to rest the physical remains,
the corporal remains of a person rather than ashes." He added, "There
is a loss in our Christian understanding of the importance of the body as a
temple of the spirit, as a vessel destined for resurrection and eternal