Pastoral sensitivity in explaining cremation options

Among the most misunderstood practices involving Catholic funerals is cremation, which is the disposal of a body by burning it and reducing it to ashes.

Cremation was forbidden by the Catholic Church for centuries because it was believed that it signaled that the immortality of the soul was being denied and the body was being disrespected.

However, the church lifted the prohibition against cremation in 1963, and in the revised Code of Canon Law (1176.3), cremation is allowed “unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” – such as the denial of the resurrection.

In the last decade, the percentage of Catholics choosing cremation has increased significantly.

Most Catholics’ understanding of cremation has begun to catch up with church teaching, but Father Joseph Benson, pastor of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Parish in Bywater, said he regularly has to answer many questions about the practice.

The biggest misunderstanding, Father Benson said, is that the church insists that the cremated remains – called cremains – be properly interred and not scattered in a field or kept in an urn on a loved one’s mantle.

Still some confusion

“The net result is people don’t know what to do,” Father Benson said. “They think they can hold on to the ashes. I’ve had several incidents where I had gone on vacation, and when I came back, this person had died and I was brought into the room to meet their ashes. You just can’t anoint ashes. It was one of those moments like – excuse me?”

Father Benson tries his best to explain church teaching about the proper interment of cremated remains. In the 1990s, the church changed its instructions in the funeral rite to allow a funeral Mass to be celebrated in the presence of cremated remains rather than have the body cremated after the Mass, with the ashes taken to the cemetery at a later date.

“That’s good news,” Father Benson said.

When Father Benson gets an inkling that a family is thinking of cremating a loved one, he will gather as many family members as possible to speak about respect for the body.

Respect for body in burial

“The most significant thing we want to get across is that the body, whether it be in one form of the other, should be brought to a Christian burial,” Father Benson said. “The ashes should not be scattered at Jax Brewery because the guy liked beer. I try to draw the members of the family into the entire liturgy and in that context talk about the sacredness of God calling us forth.

“I try not to say, ‘Here is what the law is,’ because sometimes you hit a sore point with that. I try to focus on, ‘Let’s talk about respect and honor for our dead, and that includes a proper burial place where your loved one can rise from when the Lord calls them eventually.’ Many people will accept that, and they are willing to go on to the next step.”

Cremation option growing

Father Benson said only a few of the 50 or so funerals he celebrates at his parish each year involve cremation, but he recognizes that the percentage is growing.

“Many of the elderly that we deal with have had their funeral plans made for years, so we’re still in that process,” Father Benson said. “It’s the younger group – those in their late 40s and onwards – who tend to take the option of cremation. And, it’s a valid option. We’re just getting used to it.”

In all cases, pastoral sensitivity is incredibly important at the time of death. Father Benson said many years ago  a family came to him as a last resort because a pastor could not accommodate the funeral Mass on his day off and was unavailable even to talk to the family about possible options.

“To me, being there is vital,” Father Benson said. “It’s always a point we make that when a call comes in, I want to be the one who responds. Others may take the initial information, but I will call back and go over there as fast as I can. That’s a very real experience of church for them. I’m almost 29 years a priest, and I’ve had the constant experience of people coming back to church because of something as simple but as sensitive as that.”

            Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at

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