Cremation in the Catholic Tradition
The Catholic church permits cremation, but cremated remains must be treated with the same respect as corporal remains. They must be buried or inurned in a sacred place, such as a columbarium, burial plot or mausoleum ideally within a Catholic cemetery. This prevents the deceased from being forgotten or their remains from being shown a lack of respect. Cremated remains must never be retained at home, scattered, divided or used to fashion jewelry or pottery.
Canon Law (the law of the church) maintains a preference for burial of the body, but considers cremation as an acceptable alternative unless it is chosen for reasons contrary to church teaching.
The elements of the Order of Christian Funerals should be followed. Preferably, the wake service and funeral Mass are conducted with the body present. If this cannot be done, there is a provision to celebrate the funeral Mass with the cremated remains present. The committal service at the Catholic cemetery concludes the rite.
We are accustomed to making our own decisions about daily life and future plans. We exert control over the final distribution of our assets and care for our survivors through a will and provision of life insurance policies. The care and attention given to these decisions should also be extended to the decision about cremation.
If giving serious consideration to cremation, what are the appropriate steps to take? The following recommendations are appropriate:
- Understand the teachings and traditions of our faith community.
- Discuss the matter with those closest to you and make sure they can accept cremation should you pre-decease them.
- Consult with experienced professionals about arrangements that can be made in advance. Such selections would include choice of cemetery, decision about in-ground or above-ground inurnment of the cremated remains, selection of an appropriate urn, and provision for payment in advance of all items that can be secured in this fashion.
- Understand the variety of rites contained in the Order of Christian Funerals that are provided for the benefit of you and your survivors, rites that traditionally include the Vigil, Celebration of the Funeral Mass with the body present, and Committal Service at the cemetery.
- Take into account the time necessary to perform the cremation and develop a workable sequence of events that is faithful to both personal requirements and the church’s rituals. This will be especially important when the decision for cremation is based on a desire to be buried at a considerable distance from the place of death.
People do different things with cremated remains. Some scatter the remains; some keep them at home. Some leave the remains at the crematorium or funeral home. Some choose burial or inurnment in a cemetery. Because cremated remains can be divided, some choose a combination of these alternatives. The Catholic church rejects scattering, division, and use of cremated remains to fashion jewelry or pottery and earnestly commends burial or inurnment of cremated remains as a mark of respect for the human body which was a temple of the Holy Spirit, was nourished at the Eucharistic Table, and one day will share in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Catholic church also values memorialization.
Memorials provide a visible history of our faith community in a particular place and time. They give survivors a focal point for the expression of grief and a place of comfort as they go through the grieving process. Finally, the Catholic cemetery provides a place of prayer, of reconciliation, and of hope for future reunion with Jesus Christ and loved ones who are now members of the communion of saints.