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Letter to Parishioners

The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion(no. 15)

Catholic Funerals
Part 1: What the Church Teaches About Cremation
 Last week's article was about caring for the spiritual welfare of the dying Christian, especially about what many continue to call “last rites”. This week we reflect on how our care for the body of our departed loved one ought to reflect our Christian faith.
Hope in Christ teaches us to speak openly about death, to resist a culture of the denial of death. As death may come unexpectedly, it is important that we all think about funerals beforehand, and that we talk about them with our families. Even when death comes after a long illness, it is a shock. Things happen fast. All sorts of decisions have to be made quickly. These days, one of those decisions involves whether the body is be buried in tact (“corporeal burial”) or cremated. This decision then necessarily leads to others. Catholic Christians naturally desire to have this conversation informed by the faith they profess and centuries-long experience of the Church. In this small space, the best way to summarize the Church's attitude toward cremation is by a question/answer format.
Does the Church allow cremation? “While the Church continues to hold a preference for corporeal burial, cremation has become part of Catholic practice in the United States and around the world” (U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website).
Isn't this a change in Church teaching? Yes, for centuries the Catholic Church (with almost all other Christian communions) forbade cremation, because it was associated with pagan religious practice and beliefs about the body – for example that the body was but a kind of “shell” or even a “prison” for the soul. Only very recently (1983), the Code of Canon Law was changed to read: “The Church earnestly recommends that 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” (c. 1176). Commentators point out that the change was influenced by “sensitivity to economic, geographic, ecological, or family factors” that may make cremation the only reasonable choice (Bishops' Committee on Divine Worship).
Why, then, does the Church still “earnestly recommend” corporeal burial over cremation? “The Church's reverence and care for the body grows out of a reverence and concern for the person whom the Church now commends to the care of God. This is the body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. This is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing. The human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it is hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body” (CCB website). This explanation would take us deep into the Scriptural teaching about the creation and redemption of the body, about our bodily participation in Redemption (Romans 8:23; Apostles Creed). The point is that human dignity demands that the body is not a “thing” to be disposed of. It is, rather, to be honored and “laid to rest”.
If cremation is chosen, what guidance does the church give us concerning the funeral or about how the remains are to be treated? (1) Without exception, no body is to be cremated without being accompanied by the prayers of the Church. (2) Unless circumstances make it impossible, the body is to be present at the funeral Mass; the cremation takes place after the funeral Mass at the time of the committal. (3) If this is simply impossible, the cremated remains are to be present at the funeral. (4) Cremated remains are never to be spread on the ground, thrown to the wind, stored away in a closest, or rest for years on the mantle. They are to be placed in a suitable urn and buried in marked grave or placed in a mausoleum space. + + +

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