Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Church and cremation


When it comes to the topic of cremation, it seems most Catholics aren’t clear on what the Church teaches. Even though cremation has been permitted in the Catholic Church since 1963, there are a surprising number of people who think it remains forbidden.

So, how about a little history. Cremation is ancient and appeared in many cultures. Jewish custom was always for the burial of the body. During Old Testament times, only a criminal or crass sinner normally would have had his remains cremated. Through Amos, the Lord pronounced judgment on Moab for several sins. The first He cites is that Moab “burned to lime the bones of the king of Edom.” This indicates that Moab’s cremation of Edom’s king was the result of disrespect for the dead. In Christianity, cremation was formally forbidden by Emperor Charlemagne in 784.
During the past few centuries, some atheists encouraged cremation to rebut the Bible’s teaching of resurrection. This idea has faded in recent years. This is the key – the Church rejected the practice because it seemed to be practiced out of disrespect for the dead or denial of the resurrection. The change in the Church’s stance revolves around that issue and has said, if this is not an issue of disrespect or denial, then cremation can be permitted.

However, it is still important to know a few things, as frequently, people don’t quite get it right on this issue. If someone is choosing cremation how should this be done?

1. Burial is preferred. In 1963, the Catholic Church lifted its prohibition forbidding Catholics to choose cremation. Canon Law states, “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.” Burial has been the centuries old way of honoring our dead with respect. This is still the preferred way.

2. Funeral with the body. This is one of the common things that people do incorrectly around this. If someone is choosing cremation, it should not happen until after the funeral. The funeral Mass, in all of its language and symbolism, is about honoring the body. “This is the body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life.” The Church's belief in the sacredness of life and the resurrection of the body encourages us to celebrate funeral liturgies with the body present while affirming the value of human life.

3. A worthy vessel. Again, with the theme of honoring the dead, the cremated remains should be kept in a worthy container. Not in a flower jar, canister, or any other profane object.

4. Bury the dead. I know someone who has been walking around with the remains of her mother in a zip lock bag in her purse because “she will let me know where to scatter her ashes.” The Church does not support anything other than burying the dead. Remains should not be kept on the mantle, scattered over the lake or mountains, or divided among loved ones. If you think it would be bizarre to divide a body into parts to share, then you should find the separation or scattering of ashes to be just as bizarre. These are practices that, no matter their initial inspiration, are incredibly disrespectful to the dignity of the human person. Cremated remains should be placed in a worthy vessel and buried in the ground or entombed in a columbarium, such as the one currently being built at our cemetery.

To learn more you can read Christian Burial Guidelines, by the National Catholic Cemetery Conference.

Love, Fr. Tom

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