ATLANTA (CNS) – In the Catholic Church cremation has become an accepted practice when “serious reasons” present a need for it and if the practice maintains respect for the sacredness of the body and belief in the resurrection of the dead.
The practice had previously been forbidden in the church, but a 1963 instruction by Pope Paul VI explained that cremation is acceptable when practiced “not out of hatred of the church or Christian customs, but rather for reasons of health, economics or other reasons involving public or private order.”
An example of public order would be the lack of adequate space for cemeteries, as is the case in Japan and smaller countries in northern Europe, said Holy Cross Father Richard Rutherford, professor of theology and pastoral liturgy at the University of Portland in Oregon.
He then described a situation in which cremation might be pursued because of a private order that goes “beyond economics.” Perhaps an elderly parent dies in a Florida retirement home far away from the family home in Alaska where he or she wishes to be buried, he said. Family members may live in different parts of the country and plan to make the trip home for the funeral at some point.
“Cremation in Florida, perhaps following a funeral with the body present there, and transport of the cremated remains home to Alaska for a family funeral and committal in the family plot would be a reasonable request and not (done) out of hatred,” Father Rutherford explained. “In fact, the desire to have a Catholic funeral in the parish church where the deceased had belonged before the eventual move to retirement in Florida would be a praiseworthy decision (made) out of love of the church and Christian customs.”
Cost not really a factor
Cost is often a reason for choosing cremation. However, Father Rutherford said that the cost discrepancy between a burial and cremation has lessened as “mortuaries and cremation providers – often now the same entity – are in business to provide goods and services for a profit.”
Cremation illustrates the interplay between Christian beliefs and cultural influences. “Early Christians wouldn’t have conceived of it, but (cremation) is part of our world,” said Father Rutherford, who co-wrote “The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals.”
Material from the Committee of Divine Worship of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops further explains the sacredness of the body even after death: “This is the body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. This is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing. The human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it is hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body.”
For this reason, the church “earnestly recommends” burying the body of the deceased, according to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, but does not forbid cremation unless someone has chosen cremation to deny hope in the resurrection of the body.
When cremation is to be pursued there remains “the Catholic way”of putting to rest the cremated remains, according to Father Rutherford.
First, when possible, the preference is to hold the funeral Mass or liturgy with the body of the deceased present and at the person’s home parish as it is the place where he or she lived out the Christian life.
When the funeral liturgy or Mass is to be held in the presence of one’s cremated remains, certain practices have been adapted without losing their sense of respect for the person.
For instance, Father Rutherford explained, as with the funeral liturgy when a body is present, “some form of worthy vessel” containing the ashes is met at the church door or placed at the foot of the altar. Following the funeral rite, the committal takes place whereby the cremated remains are entombed at a cemetery or mausoleum.
Certain cultural practices in regards to cremated remains are off limits to faithful Catholics. These include the desire of some to scatter a loved one’s ashes at certain locations or to distribute them to other family members. Again, the church invokes the importance of the integrity of one’s body and the hope of resurrection for the body.
According to the bishops’ statement, “the scattering of cremated remains is not a practice we believe is appropriate or honors a person, and is therefore not permitted.”
In either a traditional burial or cremation, the priest stressed that the important thing to always remember is the ‘integrity of the body.’
“The body is not simply the soul’s cage to throw away,” he said. “This was a person in relationship with God.”