Witnessed by simple men and women, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth confirmed the hope deep in the human heart that we will not be extinguished after death, that there is an eternal future for both our resurrected body and our soul.
Jesus as Resurrected Lord is the first born of the dead, and where he has gone we hope to follow. The resurrection of the body is the truth that underlies all of the Church’s teachings on cremation. Because Christ has shown us this human destiny in himself, it is fitting that the Church requires that the deceased body be treated with prayerful reverence and great dignity in recognition of its glorious future.
The Church dropped its prohibition of cremation in 1963. It now permits cremation when that choice is not a reflection of doubt or disbelief about Catholic teachings about death, resurrection and rebirth to eternal life. In recent years, new ideas contrary to the Catholic faith have become widespread. Pantheism, the worship of the forces of nature; naturalism, the idea that all truths are derived from scientific laws, not religion; and nihilism, a deep skepticism about all received truths and life itself are particularly problematic. If cremation is chosen for any of those reasons, the deceased should not receive a Catholic burial.
After cremation was allowed, the Church still required that cremation be carried out only after the actual body was present at the funeral Mass. Ashes were not allowed to substitute for the body at the funeral Mass. This prohibition also sprang from the Church’s reverence for the body, which received the sacred oils from baptism, confirmation and possibly the sacrament of the sick. The prayers of the funeral Mass confirmed this respect for the body.
However, in 1997, the Church recognized the need of loved ones of those who had chosen cremation to have a tangible presence of the deceased during the funeral Mass, and lifted the ban on having ashes present during the liturgy; thus, cremated remains could be present at a funeral Mass.
Despite that change in policy, however, one edict stands: The remains of one who has died must be treated with reverence. That means scattering cremated remains (the ashes) is forbidden. The cremated remains should be placed in a worthy container and then buried in a Catholic cemetery or placed in crypt. It also means people can’t keep the ashes on display at home on the mantle or put them away in a bank vault.
On a recent vacation in Florida, I was struck by the wisdom of Holy Mother Church. My wife and I were in the ocean and spied about 30 well-dressed people walking toward the water’s edge. We both looked bewildered at the outfits being worn on a beach until we saw the urn they were carrying. Standing chest-high in the water, we watched as the crowd came to the water’s edge and a man spoke some words, took the urn, turned toward the water and tossed the ashes toward the sea. At that very moment, a gust of wind from the ocean blew all of the ashes back at the crowd. People began choking and coughing and swatting at the cremains. I looked at my wife and said, “There’s another reason not to be spreading ashes around.”
In October of last year, the Holy Father reiterated the teachings of the Church in regard to cremated remains in Ad resurgendum cum Christo (“To Rise with Christ”), an instruction “regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation.”
So not only as a practical matter, but also out of reverence for the remains of the earthly temple of the Holy Spirit, the Church offers this guidance on the proper disposition of cremated remains.
Chris Radlicz is the family service director for the Catholic Cemeteries Association of the Archdiocese of Hartford.