Cremation in the Catholic Tradition

In the 1983 revised Code of Canon Law the church articulated a new position on cremation for Catholics: "The church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching." Cremation may be chosen for good reason. This might include hygienic, economic or reasons of a public or private nature. Some examples might include the transfer of the remains to a distant place, the avoidance of considerable expense, an ethnic tradition/custom, or a severe fear of earth burial. The selection of cremation should be the specific choice of the individual before death; and the wishes and concerns of family members must be considered.

While cremation is an acceptable alternative, if at all possible, the various elements of the church's Order of Christian Funerals, i.e. the Vigil or Wake Service, the Funeral Mass with the body present, the Committal Service at the Catholic cemetery, should be conducted in the usual way. Although all three elements or stations of the Order of Christian Funerals have importance, priority is given to the celebration of the Funeral Mass with the body present. If this cannot be done, there is provision to celebrate the Funeral Mass with the cremated remains [ashes] present.

Nowhere is the need for careful advance planning of funeral and burial rites more important than when an individual has reviewed church tradition and teaching and concluded that cremation is appropriate. Pre-planning is critical for a number of reasons, including:

  1. The opportunity to raise the question with other family members and discuss their comfort with this selection.
  2. The need to research the impact of the cremation option on the celebration of the church's Order of Christian Funerals.
  3. The need to fully understand what is being selected and what obligations remain to be satisfied.

We are accustomed to making our own decisions about daily life and future plans. We exert control over the final distribution of our assets and care for our survivors through a will and provision of life insurance policies. The care and attention given to these decisions should also be extended to the decision about cremation.

If giving serious consideration to cremation, what are the appropriate steps to take? The following recommendations are appropriate:

  1. Understand the teachings and traditions of our faith community.
  2. Discuss the matter with those closest to you and make sure they can accept cremation should you pre-decease them.
  3. Consult with experienced professionals about arrangements that can be made in advance. Such selections would include choice of cemetery, decision about in-ground or above-ground inurnment of the cremated remains, selection of an appropriate urn, and provision for payment in advance of all items that can be secured in this fashion.
  4. Understand the variety of rites contained in the Order of Christian Funerals that are provided for the benefit of you and your survivors, rites that traditionally include the Vigil, Celebration of the Funeral Mass with the body present, and Committal Service at the cemetery.
  5. Take into account the time necessary to perform the cremation and develop a workable sequence of events that is faithful to both personal requirements and the church's rituals. This will be especially important when the decision for cremation is based on a desire to be buried at a considerable distance from the place of death.

People do different things with cremated remains. Some scatter the remains; some keep them at home. Some leave the remains at the crematorium or funeral home. Some choose burial or inurnment in a cemetery. Because cremated remains can be divided, some choose a combination of these alternatives. The Catholic church rejects scattering, division, and use of cremated remains to fashion jewelry or pottery and earnestly commends burial or inurnment of cremated remains as a mark of respect for the human body which was a temple of the Holy Spirit, was nourished at the Eucharistic Table, and one day will share in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Catholic church also values memorialization.

Memorials provide a visible history of our faith community in a particular place and time. They give survivors a focal point for the expression of grief and a place of comfort as they go through the grieving process. Finally, the Catholic cemetery provides a place of prayer, of reconciliation, and of hope for future reunion with Jesus Christ and loved ones who are now members of the communion of saints.