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Cremation and the Catholic Church

Fr. Joel Church meets World, Life on Planet Earth

—– Part 3 of 3 —–

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:19)

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 doctrine. (Code of Canon Law 1176 §3)

Last week I shared about my Grandmother’s funeral. We chose to have her funeral Mass celebrated in her local parish church, with a brief open-casket visitation before the service and a burial at the cemetery following the service. Sometimes loved ones express that they “don’t want any fuss” or “just do it all at the funeral home.” But this isn’t really what is best for them or for us. When they get to the other side, they will see more clearly the good reasons behind our ancient traditions. The funeral is not a time to get too creative; the old customs work best. This is especially true when it comes to cremation. The Catholic Church permits cremation, but the ashes of the deceased have to be buried in consecrated ground or in a mausoleum.

I was meeting with a family to prepare for a funeral and they told me they wanted to scatter Mom’s ashes. I asked them, “What would it mean?” They told me, “Well, it means that it’s over, and she’s free now, and she can be one with nature and the universe.” I answered, “There’s the problem. What you have just said completely contradicts your Catholic faith.”

It’s not over. Death is not the end of the story. Rather, our loved ones will rise again at the Second Coming of Christ (John 11, Rev. 20:11-15), and live with Him forever in heaven. Death isn’t “freedom” because the body isn’t a prison. Rather, the body is the sacrament of the soul. The body reveals the soul and what happens to the body affects the soul. The Resurrection means a new and glorified body. And we aren’t mean to be “one with the universe.” Rather, we are destined to be one with the Almighty, to union with God. The universe reveals God and speaks of God, but we were made for Him and not for this earth.

It is also not right to give each family member a little bit of the ashes. Imagine saying, “I’ll take a leg, you can have an arm, who wants this part of Mom?” That is essentially what we are doing when we divvy up the ashes. This is why it is very important that the ashes be buried in the ground or in a mausoleum and not stored at home, scattered, or made into jewelry.

Cremation can happen before the funeral. The ashes will be present at the funeral Mass and taken to be buried after. The disadvantage is that sometimes we really do need to see our loved one in the casket to help us realize they are gone and let go of them. Cremation can also happen after the funeral and before burial. The visitation could happen as normal but then the family has to schedule a future date for the burial and that final closure. In my experience, having a whole-body burial with a visitation and a funeral Mass works best for everyone involved. It can also be expensive. Families are often unprepared for the cost of a funeral. My hope is that the funeral industry will begin to provide more economical options for whole-body burial. In the final analysis, what matters most is not the kind of casket or the day of the funeral. It matters that we send them on their way to God, and that they pray for us to join them.

Come Lord Jesus!

Part 1: How to Bury the Dead

Part 2: Mass of Christian Burial