“Years ago, cremation was not allowed in the Catholic Church. Why is OK to now?” — Green Bay
This is a very good question and one that affects a multitude of folks as they contemplate their final wishes and prepare to fall asleep in Christ.
The church is very clear about its teaching on the respect of the body, that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and is to be treated with dignity and respect. The rites — now called “Order of Christian Funerals” — speak of this great respect and the theological expectation that the body is indeed important and not simply a hollow vessel for the soul and that it will be raised on the last day. As the introduction to the “Funeral Rites for Cremains” states, “The body of the deceased brings forcefully to mind the church’s conviction that the human body is in Christ a temple of the Holy Spirit and is destined for future glory at the resurrection of the dead” (n. 412).
Out of this respect and expectation, the church is very clear about how the deceased body is to be cared for and respected through the various rites which accompany its commendation to the final place of repose.
The controversy around cremation really arises around intent. Though the church still prefers that the body of the deceased not be cremated and also that, if the body is to be cremated, it be cremated after the funeral rites, it does allow for cremation for the proper reasons. A special indult — permission — was requested by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1996 and was granted by the Vatican later in 1997 to allow the presence of cremated remains at the funeral liturgy. This was primarily due to pastoral concerns for the family. Because cremation is a common practice within our culture — often chosen due to financial circumstances of a family — and the cremation of the body does not desecrate the sacred nature of the body, it is permitted though again, not preferred, by the church.
It is important to note that the church asks us to treat cremains with the same respect and dignity it does for a deceased body. Cremains are to be buried in sacred ground — a cemetery — or interred in a mausoleum just as a body would be out of proper respect and for the opportunity for visitation, rather than kept as the private property of those grieving.
As the introduction to the rite states, “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” (n. 417).
Johnson is director of divine worship for the Diocese of Green Bay.