Catholic cremation: beliefs
The Catholic Church’s attitude toward cremation has changed over time. For centuries, religious authorities believed that cremation prevented resurrection of the body and forbade Catholic families from cremating their loved ones. Over time, the Church has amended its stance on cremation, lifting its ban and issuing guidelines for how to handle ashes with care.
Today, cremation is not only allowed, but is growing in popularity in Catholic communities across the United States. Nearly one third of American Catholic families opt for cremation today, and the number continues to grow each year.
Catholic views on the body
Historically, Catholic views about cremation have stemmed from Catholic teachings about the body. Roman Catholics consider the body a temple of the Holy Spirit, and a member of the Body of Jesus Christ. This belief creates a great reverence for the human body.
How the physical body is treated after death is important because of the Catholic belief that followers of Christ will one day be raised up with Christ to new life. For centuries, many believed that cremation prevented the possibility of the body being resurrected.
Now, the Church has changed its stance, saying resurrection is possible regardless of the method of final disposition. Resurrection isn’t obscured by cremation because God resurrects the spiritual body to enter heaven, not the physical body, the Vatican says. Since cremation does not affect one’s soul, the Church says there are no doctrinal objections to cremation.
The Church no longer opposes cremation, but it does offer guidelines on how the ashes should be cared for following cremation. To preserve the sanctity of the body, the Church says ashes cannot be scattered or divided among family members. Read along to learn more about Catholic guidelines for cremation.
Changes in Catholic teachings on cremation
Though the Vatican forbade cremation for centuries, the Church amended its Code of Canon Law in 1963, lifting its ban on cremation.
As long as cremation is not chosen to partake in a pagan ritual, the Church allows it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the organized teachings of the Catholic Church and its primary reference text, only directly references cremation once, saying: “the Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (no. 2301).
Since 1997, ashes have been formally allowed at Catholic funeral Masses, and are given the same respect as body scheduled to be buried.
In 2016, the Church issued new guidelines for how to lay a loved one to rest after cremation.
Guidelines on cremation
If a body is to be cremated, the family must still hold a funeral Mass with traditional funeral rites. The Church strongly urges that the full body of the deceased be present during the final rites, but ashes are also allowed to be present at the Mass.
If a Catholic family chooses cremation, the Church requires reverent disposition of the ashes. The Vatican says the ashes must be treated in the same way a body would be. The ashes are to be kept in a sacred place, the Church says, not in one’s home, scattered, or divided among family members. Burial in a Catholic cemetery or other sacred place is “above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body,” the 2016 statement from the Vatican reads. In addition to ground burial in a cemetery plot as the final resting place, ashes can also be interred in a columbarium, which is a shared mausoleum, or buried in an urn garden.
The Church maintains that it does not oppose cremation, and anyone who has been cremated can still receive Catholic funeral rites, including a funeral liturgy. This guidance is true for both traditional cremation and direct cremation.
What does the Bible say?
The Bible doesn’t provide any direct guidance about what to do with a body after death. Scholars have noted that any reference on cremation in the Bible only points to cultural expectations of body handling after death, and does not reference any religious requirements.
The Bible does not give any revelation or direction for what to do with a loved one who has passed, though the usual way that dead bodies were handled was burial. There was no way of embalming dead bodies, so the custom was to bury the person the very day that they died. There were different types of burials: direct burial in the ground, burial in a crypt above the ground, and burial in ancestral caves.
Some use Genesis 3:19 as evidence that the Bible supports cremation. The passage reads, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Corinthians 15:35-55 distinguishes between the human and the spiritual body: “It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. They are buried as natural human bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.” Regardless of the final disposition of a body, all souls are raised as spiritual bodies, the Bible says. All bodies are “buried in brokenness,” whether cremated first, or buried in the earth to decay.
Cremation was practiced in the Bible when a body was desecrated. In 1 Samuel 31:11-13, cremation is a viable option, and is not seen as interfering with salvation. “And when the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead heard of that which the Philistines had done to Saul; All the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the well of Beth Shan, and came to Jabesh, and burnt them there. And they took their bones, and buried them under a tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.”
Why choose cremation?
While full-body burial remains the Church’s preferred choice, there are practical reasons many Catholic families choose cremation.
The first consideration is cost. Cremation can save families thousands, as funeral homes can charge upwards of $10,000 for the cost of a burial.
Cremation also takes up less space, which means families can inter multiple ashes in a single plot. With burial plot costs rising each year, families who choose cremation can save money and ensure that their loved ones will be laid to rest together.
If environmental impact is a consideration when choosing a final disposition method, then cremation may be the best choice for you. Cremation is more ecologically-friendly, as there are fewer materials required, and less space taken up. Most Catholic cemeteries require bodies to be buried in burial vaults, which keep the body from decaying in the earth, increasing the environmental impact.
If you are considering cremation and have more questions, speak to your religious leader for guidance.
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