Cremation rates have been on the rise for years. In the U.S. alone, as of 2016, over 50% of funerals were cremations.
Many people, no matter their background, believe there are several benefits to cremation, including lower funeral costs, and sustainability, as cremation is often viewed as a more environmentally-friendly option.
But, different religions have different views on cremation. Some even have strict rules on what a memorial service should be, and how the deceased should be treated in a ceremonial manner.
What about Catholicism?
There are over 1 billion practicing Catholics across the world. It is a religion that has been influential and heavily-followed for centuries. So, understanding how Catholics view cremation is important. Has that view changed over the years? Why do they believe certain things about cremation that other religions don’t?
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the Catholic views on cremation, and learn more about how it is viewed in the church.
A History Against Cremation
The real history of cremation in the Catholic church isn’t that old. For nearly 2,000 years, Catholic teachings stated specifically that cremation was wrong and Catholicism would not condone it.
In 1963, however, a change occurred from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. This change stated that cremation would be allowed for Catholics as long as it did not suggest a denial of the belief and faith in the resurrection.
One of the biggest reasons as to why Catholicism has been so against cremation for centuries is due to that very fact: Catholics believe the deceased should be buried in the same was as Jesus Christ, who was laid in a tomb after his death. This is because Catholics believe in the resurrection of the body. A body that is burned to ash and bone is referred to as a “brutal destruction” by the Vatican.
However, the church has realized over the years that people have personal reasons for wanting cremation. So, while it is still not something that is promoted, it is allowed under certain terms.
After the ban on cremation was lifted in 1963 by the Pope, it took until 1966 for Catholic priests to be able to perform funeral services where the body had been cremated. Even then, it needed to be made clear that the reason for cremation was not a suggestion that the deceased did not believe in the resurrection.
From 1966-1997, it was ordered by the church that cremation could only take place after the traditional funeral services. During this time, a standard service would be given up to the point of burial. Instead of burying the deceased after the service, the religious part of the service would conclude and the body would be taken to a crematorium. Once the process was complete, there would be a separate burial service for the ashes.
In 1997, the Catholic cremation rules changed to allow for a funeral service to be held after the body had already been cremated. However, a strict process was still followed by these services. The ashes had to be placed in an urn or another type of vessel before being brought to the church and placed on a stand next to the Paschal Candle.
Catholic Cremation Today
Even since the change in cremation occurred within the Catholic church, it is still believed in many cases that cremation is wrong and bodies should be buried. However, in more recent years the Vatican has adapted their way of thinking once again.
While burials are still preferred, Catholics can now cremate the deceased without reprimand. However, the Vatican states that the ashes of the deceased should not be scattered or even kept in a respectful place in the home. Instead, they should be kept in a sacred place. Most often, that means storing them in a church cemetery. The Vatican has released the following guidelines to direct such matters:
“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 their 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 a friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires. Whenever possible, appropriate means for memorializing the deceased should be utilized, such as a plaque or stone that records the name of the deceased” (OCF 426).
Whereas many other cultures and religions allow family members to “divide” ashes between several people or even turn them into keepsakes such as jewelry, that is strictly looked down upon in the Catholic religion. In fact, the Vatican guidelines suggest that those practices are sacrilegious.
In some cases, keeping the ashes at home in a special place are permitted, but it requires the approval of a Bishop, first.
Why isn’t it okay to scatter someone’s ashes? According to the church, it suggests the belief in a different kind of god, rather than focusing on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Catholics (and Christians, in general) are called to be living temples, and even when someone is deceased, their body should still be treated as such. So, it makes sense for the religion to believe that burning and destroying the body is akin to destroying the temple.
What About Direct Cremation?
There are certain instances in which a person must be cremated immediately after death, or at least at some point before a proper funeral service. This is often referred to as ‘direct cremation’. This might occur if a person dies far away from home, or if they had an infectious disease. It might also be an option if something like a natural disaster or severe weather would have to prolong funeral services. It is much easier to transport cremated remains than an actual body, and if a funeral cannot be held for some time, a body may not ‘last’ before it is time to give a proper burial.
In these cases, the funeral services would take place after cremation. The urn or other vessel would take the place of a casket within the church, and normal proceedings would follow. After the service, the vessel containing the ashes would be buried in a Catholic cemetery without waiting, the same way a body would be following the service.
Are There Consequences to Cremation?
Because of the changes made to the Vatican’s documents, there are no actual “punishments” issued by the church when it comes to cremation. However, the church does make it known how important it is to follow the strict rules set in place as to how a person should be cremated, the funeral arrangements, and what can/should happen to the ashes.
If those guidelines aren’t followed, the Catholic church can deny funeral rights. That only occurs when the deceased want their ashes scattered for what the church assumes to be a reason contrary to the Christian faith. If that is the case, that person’s funeral rights within the church will be denied by law.
Areas of Debate
As you might expect, there is plenty of debate in regards to these rules, guidelines, and how they have changed over the years. Most of that debate arises from those who follow Traditional Catholicism and Sedevacantism.
Traditional Catholics follow the rules, beliefs, and guidelines set in place by the Roman Catholic Church that preceded the Second Vatican Council. Sedevacantists do not believe that Jorge Bergoglio (Pope Francis) a true Pope. They believe that the religious teachings before and after Vatican II are radically different, and there was a substantial shift in doctrine. If you would like to know more about Sedevacantism, check out the video below:
Simply put, the debate comes from the fact that more traditional Catholics hold onto the belief that cremation is a brutal process of destroying the body, and it should not be allowed in Catholicism. Sedevacantists tend to believe the “newer” approach to cremation, allowing it if it does not interfere with the deceased’s beliefs that they will be resurrected with Jesus Christ.
What Are the Facts on Catholic Cremation Today?
Because the Catholic church has made several changes and amendments to their rules and guidelines over the years, it can sometimes be difficult for practicing Catholics to know what is acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to cremation. Of course, as stated above, there is some debate in that. What is considered to be acceptable to one person may still be seen as sacrilegious to another individual. It’s likely that debate won’t let up any time soon unless certain rules are revoked or changed back to more “traditional” ways.
With that in mind, there are a few key concepts to be aware of when it comes to how cremation is commonly viewed among Catholics today:
- You do not need to ask permission to be cremated, but it is a good idea to discuss your reasons for wanting the process (or discussing it about an ailing family member) with your bishop, priest, etc. One of the major reasons why cremation is such an issue with Catholics is that it can be seen as a rebellion against the teachings of Jesus Christ. By clearly laying out your beliefs and your reasons for cremation, you’ll alleviate a lot of your own stress, and it’s more likely your priest will perform a traditional Catholic funeral.
- It is preferred to have the cremated remains present after the liturgy. In cases where that isn’t possible, the remains can be present at the funeral service, taking the place of a traditional casket.
- There are certain funeral rites and rituals that can still be celebrated over a body that has been cremated. Some of those celebratory rituals include:
- Funeral Mass/Liturgy
- Praying over the deceased
- Rite of Committal
- Vigil for the deceased
- Though ashes cannot be scattered at sea or on land, the ashes can be buried at sea. The stipulation here is that the church requires the burial vessel to be something appropriate and heavy enough to immediately sink to the bottom. It also must be sealed in such a way that the remains will not escape and scatter. Everything must be done with respect to the body itself when it comes to the final resting place of an individual’s remains.
The best thing any Catholic family can do if they are concerned about cremation is to speak with their local Diocese.
Catholicism has a very interesting and long history when it comes to cremation and whether or not it is appropriate. The topic is so controversial within the religion that it quite literally has two schools of thought. If you speak with two different Catholics, they may give you different answers on whether cremation is an acceptable process.
The most important thing to keep in mind, no matter which “area” of Catholicism anyone is in, is that all Catholics believe the body is a temple. It is believed that Jesus Christ was buried (in a tomb), and we are to be a reflection of his sacrifice. In more recent years, the Vatican has acknowledged some of the benefits of cremation in our ever-changing world, which is why some allowances have been made. For most Catholics, the choice of cremation or burial is likely to be nothing more than a personal one, since it is allowed within the church, but still not encouraged.