It is possible that, in our contemporary times, you have been asked this question, “Do Catholics permit cremation?”, and you might have said something in response. As to whether that was the accurate response or not, the following reflection will help us draw our individual conclusions.

What is cremation? Google says, it is “the disposal of a dead person’s body by burning it to ashes, typically after a funeral ceremony.” In other words, rather than burying the dead person’s body in the earth, it is rather burned to ashes. In that case, we can say there are two ways of disposing of our dead bodies, either through burial or through cremation.

In the Code of Canon Law, two canons are dedicated to cremation, that is, Canons 1176 § 3 and 1184, 2°. Can. 1176 §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 doctrine.”

Right from the outset, let us make it clear that, the Church prefers the burial of our deceased to cremation. On 5 July 1963, the Holy Office issued an instruction called Piam et Constantem, in which it was categorically stated that,

“All necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed…For the Church has always maintained the practice of burial and consecrated it through liturgical rites.”

Going forward, as recent as 15 August 2016, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued another instruction called Ad resurgendum cum Christo, regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation. The document shed more light on the issue of burial and cremation, and specified some do’s and don’ts in the case of cremation. We shall look at some excerpts of that document.

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Among other things, Ad resurgendum cum Christo says,

“Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning. The Christian vision of death receives privileged expression in the liturgy of the Church: “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven”. By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. In our own day also, the Church is called to proclaim her faith in the resurrection: “The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live”” (# 2).

Following the most ancient Christian tradition, why does the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places? The instruction under review gives us the answer, and it says,

“By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity…Furthermore, burial in a cemetery or another sacred place adequately corresponds to the piety and respect owed to the bodies of the faithful departed who through Baptism have become temples of the Holy Spirit and in which “as instruments and vessels the Spirit has carried out so many good works”” (# 3).

And, “Finally, the burial of the faithful departed in cemeteries or other sacred places encourages family members and the whole Christian community to pray for and remember the dead, while at the same time fostering the veneration of martyrs and saints” (# 3).

These are some of the arguments for which the Church prefers burial to cremation. She takes the issue of death and burial of her children seriously, so,

“She cannot, therefore, condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the “prison” of the body” (Ad resurgendum cum Christo, 3).

Cremation may be chosen for various reasons, such as sanitary, economic or social considerations. Can. 1176 § 3 has already stated that “the Church does not prohibit cremation.” The instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo reiterates this point by stating,

“The Church raises no doctrinal objections to this practice, since cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life. Thus cremation, in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body” (# 4).

The only reason for which the Church would prohibit cremation would be if, “it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine”, as found in Can. 1176, § 3. Those who choose cremation for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine are sanctioned by the Church – they are deprived of church funeral.

Can. 1184 § 1, 2° states, “Unless they gave some signs of repentance before death, the following must be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals: those who chose the cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to Christian faith.”

Based on what we have seen so far, we can say that, a person can choose freely whether to be buried after death or cremated. No long talk. John P. Beal et al say, “No longer is it necessary to have positive reasons for choosing cremation. Anyone may choose cremation unless it is done for reasons contrary to Christian teaching.”

It would, therefore, be contrary to Church teaching, if a pastor denies a family the choice of cremation. In fact,

“the Church, after the celebration of the funeral rite, accompanies the choice of cremation, providing the relevant liturgical and pastoral directives, and taking particular care to avoid every form of scandal or the appearance of religious indifferentism” (Ad resurgendum cum Christo, 4).

After the cremation, what next? Ad resurgendum cum Christo responds, “the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery or, in certain cases, in a church or an area, which has been set aside for this purpose, and so dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority” (# 5). Some churches have a place called columbarium where they keep the urns containing the ashes after the cremation. So you see, even after cremation, there are guidelines, and we must do well to follow them.

Can the ashes of the deceased be kept at home? No. Can family members divide the ashes among themselves? No. The instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo states,

“…the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted. Only in grave and exceptional cases dependent on cultural conditions of a localized nature, may the Ordinary, in agreement with the Episcopal Conference or the Synod of Bishops of the Oriental Churches, concede permission for the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence. Nonetheless, the ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained regarding the circumstances of such a conservation.”

What about scattering the ashes in the air, land, or sea; or preserving them in mementos, pieces of jewelry, or other objects? No, no, no. The instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo insists,

“In order that every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism be avoided, it is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects. These courses of action cannot be legitimized by an appeal to the sanitary, social, or economic motives that may have occasioned the choice of cremation” (# 7).

If one chooses cremation, but decides to flout the stance, or instructions, of the Church regarding such matters, then sanctions would have to be applied. The document Ad resurgendum cum Christo concludes by stating,

“When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith, a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law” (# 8).

Based on all that we have discussed so far, it is always prudent for families to engage their pastors when they are preparing the funeral celebration of their loved ones. It is even more critical when we are dealing with the subject of cremation. The pastor would like to be sure that the choice is not based on anti-Christian sentiments, and that the family is fully aware of the do’s and don’ts as spelt out in the documents of the Church.

In brief, we said,
The Church prefers the burial of our deceased to cremation.
The burial of the faithful departed in cemeteries or other sacred places encourages family members and the whole Christian community to pray for and remember the dead, while at the same time fostering the veneration of martyrs and saints.
The Church raises no doctrinal objections to cremation, since cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life.
The only reason for which the Church would prohibit cremation would be if, “it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine” (Can. 1176 § 3).
The ashes of the cremated faithful cannot be kept in private residences, nor shared among family members, nor scattered in the air, land, or sea, or preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry, etc.

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Authored by Rev. Fr John Patrick Tindana// AGNUS-DEI MEDIA