What Does the Church Really Say About Cremation?

Q: We would like to spread my husband’s grandparents’ remains and I would like to arrange to have their ashes blessed.  Do you have a suggestion for making arrangements? –Kristine

A:  Very few Catholics today understand what the Church teaches about cremation of a deceased Catholic’s remains and the proper way to deal with the ashes, primarily because some of the rules have changed in the relatively recent past.  Before answering Kristine’s specific question, let’s take a look at what the Catholic Church has to say about cremation in general.

The current Code of Canon Law contains only two canons that mention cremation at all.  Canon 1176.3 asserts that the Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial of the bodies of deceased faithful should be retained; but it adds that the Church does not forbid cremation, unless it is chosen for reasons that are contrary to Christian teaching.  This is followed up by canon 1184.1 no. 2, which states that those who choose to be cremated for reasons contrary to Christian faith are to be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals.  The wording of these canons represents a huge sea-change in the Church’s position on this subject, since the two corresponding canons on cremation found in the previous (1917) code presented a completely different position.  The former canon 1203.1 asserted that cremation was strictly forbidden; and the former canon 1240.1 no. 5 stated that those Catholics who chose to be cremated were to be denied Christian burial altogether!  What caused the Church to alter its stance on cremation so dramatically?

The preference of the Catholic Church for burial over cremation is grounded in theology. Since we Catholics believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the dignity of the human body as created by God, it is only logical that Catholicism also holds that the body of a deceased person should be handled with respect.  Consequently, burning it has not traditionally been considered acceptable treatment.

Historically, cremation was associated with the funeral practices of pagans, whose religious beliefs included no expectation of eventual resurrection.  This theological distinction is what led the early Christians in Rome to bury their dead separately, in the catacombs—outside the city walls—in marked contrast to their pagan fellow-Romans.

Thus if/when a Catholic historically has chosen to have his body cremated after death, it normally implied that he had abandoned hope in the resurrection of the body, and/or was actively scoffing at it!  Since burial has for centuries been the standard method of handling the remains of a deceased Catholic, anyone opting instead for cremation had to make a concerted effort to “buck the norm” and arrange for his funeral to be handled differently.  Again, this was as a rule considered a theological issue.  The canon of the previous code mentioned above, that forbade a Catholic funeral for those who chose cremation, was based on the assumption that any Catholic who rejected traditional burial practices was doing so because he rejected a fundamental theological tenet of our faith: the eventual resurrection of the dead, at the end of the world.

But in more recent decades, very practical, non-theological concerns began to arise with some frequency.  The primary problem, when there’s been one, has generally involved money.  In areas of the world with extremely dense populations, where real-estate prices are exorbitant, buying a plot of land for a burial can be prohibitively expensive for many.  Catholics who could not afford the price of a burial-plot were thus caught in a quandary, since they were inadvertently being forced to choose between having a funeral and burial in accord with Church teaching, and having one they could afford (involving cremation).  In certain parts of the world, many Catholics found themselves technically at odds with the Church’s official position on the matter—and yet under such circumstances, it is clear that they were not raising any theological objections at all.  As the Vatican’s 2001 Decree on Popular Piety and the Liturgy noted succinctly, “Cremation is also a contemporary phenomenon in virtue of the changed circumstances of life” (254).

Back in 1966, the Vatican had already addressed another sort of burial-situation that was regularly arising, one that likewise was not grounded in theology.  In the U.S. (and undoubtedly in other countries as well), when a pregnant woman suffers a miscarriage, hospitals routinely cremate the baby’s remains solely for pragmatic reasons, certainly without any intention of rejecting the Catholic doctrine on the resurrection.  But on those occasions when these babies had been baptized, this meant that the bodies of Catholics were being cremated—technically in violation of the then-current law forbidding this.  What were distraught Catholic parents, who had just lost their unborn child, expected to do in this type of situation?

In response, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asserted publicly that if there is a reasonable cause [which would include routine hospital sanitary practices] that prevented the burial of a fetus, there was no objection to cremation.  We can see here that the canon governing this issue in the abstract was being overruled at a more practical level.

For reasons such as these, when the Code of Canon Law was being revised a few decades ago, the cremation-canons were revised too.  The current canons reflect the Church’s continued preference for burial, in accord with Catholic teaching on the resurrection of the body—but also acknowledge that sometimes, even among faithful Catholics who are not rejecting this doctrine at all, burial is just not doable.

But if cremation of a Catholic is lawful under circumstances such as those described above, that leads us to the next question: when a Catholic’s body has been reduced to ashes, what are we supposed to do with the remains?  The Church’s Order of Christian Funerals, which contains the Rite of Christian Burial that is to be followed throughout the world, may not have originally specified the correct way to handle this situation, but an Appendix was published in 1997 giving instructions on what to do when a body is cremated:

The cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires. Whenever possible, appropriate means for recording with dignity the memory of the deceased should be adopted, such as a plaque or stone which records the name of the deceased (417).

Here is the answer to Kristine’s question.  Scattering the ashes of a loved one may sound like a beautiful thing to do, but it is not in keeping with the Catholic Church’s respect for the bodies of deceased Catholic faithful—even if they have been cremated.  If it is at all possible to inter them in some appropriate, respectful place, as is described in this passage, Catholics are to do so.

We see here an example of abstract Catholic teaching meeting day-to-day reality.  The Church has not changed one iota of its theological understanding of the eventual resurrection of the dead, and its consequential preference for the burial of Catholics’ remains when possible.  But it does not deny the fact that nowadays, a fair number of Catholic faithful around the world are unable to comply for purely practical reasons—not because they don’t believe what the Church teaches!  Thus the Church has managed to balance its continued adherence to a basic tenet of our faith, with the understandable inability of many people, through no fault of their own, to comply.

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