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The Church is against cremation. Yet at our parish the storing of ashes nourishes faith and encourages prayers for the dead

The Italian Church’s newly promulgated Funeral Rites leave me in a quandary

By on Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Vaclav Havel's widow holds an urn containing his ashes (CTK Photo/Roman Vondrous)

Vaclav Havel's widow holds an urn containing his ashes (CTK Photo/Roman Vondrous)

I don’t think this is an inappropriate subject to raise, given that we are approaching Good Friday and the death of God – but in case people hadn’t noticed, the Church in Italy has promulgated new Funeral Rites. What interests me is what is said about cremation in the appendix to the revised rubrics: the Church, “although she does not oppose the cremation of bodies, when not done ‘in odium fidei’, continues to maintain that the burial of the dead is more appropriate, that it expresses faith in the resurrection of the flesh, nourishes the piety of the faithful and favours the recollection and prayer of relatives and friends”.

This is classic Church-speak: courteous, laborious, indirect – but with a firm fist under the velvet glove. So the Church is really against cremation and would prefer her members to be buried? This leaves me in a quandary. I had never given the subject a moment’s thought but probably, being innately of a conservative disposition, would have veered towards burial if challenged. This was until, as a family, we moved, some years ago, to our present parish. Its pastor was a holy and eccentric priest (the two characteristics are not unknown in the priesthood) with a great devotion to the Holy Shroud – hence my recent blog on this subject, for which I thank the posts that agreed with me as to its unassailable authenticity.

This priest, who had built his parish church by hand, with the devoted help of his parishioners, included a full-length facsimile of the Holy Shroud on a wall adjacent to the altar. Behind the photographic negative of the image, always illuminated during Mass, was a columbarium – specifically designed to contain the ashes of dead parishioners if they were so disposed. The purpose was that their remains would rest as if near the entombed Christ, awaiting the sure hope of the resurrection of the body as stated in the Creed. It seemed such a beautiful idea that I signed up to join the list.

So why does the Church still think burial is more appropriate when the practice, in our parish at least, fulfils all the norms? Our columbarium shows faith in the resurrection, nourishes the piety of the faithful who often place flowers in front of the Shroud in remembrance of their loved ones, and the dead are prayed for during Mass.

It could be because Catholics being human, and humans being capricious, ashes sometimes get scattered all over the place (or even kept on the mantelpiece in the living room). The new Rites observe: “Cremation is considered as concluded when the urn is deposited in the cemetery.” This is because although the law does allow ashes to be scattered in the open or conserved in places other than a cemetery, “such practices… raise considerable doubts as to their coherence to Christian faith, especially when they conceal pantheistic or naturalistic beliefs”. The Church, as always, has to protect the faithful from its tendency towards the bizarre and wacky sentimentality.

According to the Vatican Information Service, Bishop Alceste Catella, President of the Episcopal Commission for Liturgy, explained that the new Funeral Rites book “…is testament to the pressing need to cultivate memory and to have a specific place in which to place the body or ashes, in the profound certainty that this is authentic faith and authentic humanism”.

My last question: are there really people who deliberately choose cremation in odium fidei (hatred of the faith)?

  • Patrick_Hadley

    The Church used to teach that arranging to be cremated after death, or assisting in a cremation, was a sin. Now it is allowed, so it is no longer a sin. We should be grateful for another example of how a moral principle the Church taught for many centuries can be changed, as the Church learns from the example of the world. 

  • Cjkeeffe

    The Code of Canon Law 1983 permits cremation provided the decison to have a cremation is not a rejection of the resurrection it says must not be desired as negation of Christian dogmas in a sectarian spirit, out of hatred of the Catholic religion or of the Church. Yes I am sure that there are people who chose cremation to mock the teachings of the church.

  • Cestius

    I’ve never really understood why there should be an issue with cremation (other than cultural reasons) - after all do we doubt for one second the ability of God to raise the dead, whether the atoms have been dispersed by worms and decay, or simply burned? Many have died in accidents where bodies have been destroyed altogether by fire or never found, and yet we don’t doubt that they will see the resurrection.

  • Jeannine

    Cremation has nothing to do with morals or principles. It was a cultural tradition that the early Church frowned upon because it was used by the pagans who did not believe in the resurrection of the body. Some traditions can be changed as long as the dogma associated with the tradition is not changed.

    Poster, Cjkeefe, sums it up nicely, “The Code of Canon Law 1983 permits cremation provided the decision to have a cremation is not a rejection of the resurrection it says must not be desired as negation of Christian dogmas in a sectarian spirit, out of hatred of the Catholic religion or of the Church. “

  • Oconnord

    “The Church, as always, has to protect the faithful from its tendency towards the bizarre and wacky sentimentality.”
    Not so sure about the protect part, but the wacky sentimentality is true. For example I wonder how this issue affects the 30% of Irish catholics who believe in reincarnation. (CH article last month).

  • tina jackson

    i have told my daughters i want to be cremated and they will go with my wishes, i saw many of my family buried in the past, it still haunts me!! i only hope my catholic priest and friends do not prevent my wishes? i worry that i am doing the wrong thing, can someone please help me on this?

  • Patrick_Hadley

     You are confusing dogma with moral doctrine. I am not saying that dogma can change, but that moral teaching, also know as moral doctrine, can and often does. It is simply silly to deny that for the best part of two thousand years Catholics were taught that it was a sin to cremate a body. This was part of Catholic moral doctrine, taught authoritatively by the magisterium up to the end of the nineteenth century.

  • Seangough

    It was not a sin in it’s own right. It was a sin because the church required (for the reasons expressed above) that it should not be done. It would be the disobedience of the Church which was a sin in it’s own right. Are you really unable to draw that distinction??

  • Seangough

    Can you give us some better examples to work with where the Church has changed moral doctrine? Please give us specific references to what part of the magesterium has been ‘updated’.

  • Patrick_Hadley

     That is simply not true. The Church did not teach that cremation was banned because it was breaking a rule, such as eating meat on a Friday, but because cremation was intrinsically evil, a “detestable abuse” in the words of Pope Leo XIII in 1886.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    The Church used to teach that it was moral to keep slaves, and praiseworthy to torture and burn religious dissidents; but that it was immoral to charge any interest on a loan, wicked to speak out against dictators, and a grave sin to join in with prayers and hymns led by non-Catholics.

  • Seangough

    No it really did. Even the SSPX accept this (obviously they still beleive it to be a detestable abuse). If it were not the case then why did the church allow it in certain circumstances, such as in times of disease and war? Because they it was clear that in these circumstances it could not be construed as a denial of the bodily ressurection. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not syaing that the church took the issue lightly, what I’m saying is that it did not not form part of the Magesterium. It the same with going to Mass now on Sundays, the church conciders it a grave sin to miss Mass on a Sunday, but it is a dicipline and not a doctrine.

  • Seangough

    With regards to slavery I cannot understand how it is possible  for you to argue that the church has leant from the example of the world. The Catholic Church has throughout it’s history led the world in both emiloration of the slaves condition, and finally in emancipation. I will not argue that this hasn’t been slow, or that there have not been anomolies, but this is true of EVERY moral teaching the Church professes. Whether of not this constitutes a change is hotly debated, and not one i have personally studied greatly, but i would like to refer you to the following link in order that might be able to have amore rounded veiw. http://www.cfpeople.org/Apologetics/page51a003.html

    As far as torture is concerned, even the CCC does not denie the church ofentime complicity in it, but it recognises it in much the same way as the death penatly. Ie. in very conditional circumstance it might be justified, however unlike the death penalty it clarifies that these condition were more than likely never met, and therfore any use of it was more than likely an abuse. Here’s the quote:

    Torture, which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity… In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.
    Again it’s very difficult to compare the Churches teaching on usury because he do not live in anything like a similar economic or cultural situation. It is however clear that the church did not consider usury to be wrong in it’s self, but because it violated other fundermental laws. Within a modern capitalist economy these conditions are no longer met. For a much stronger explaination:


    Wicked to speak out against dictators???

    Again the sin of praying with non Catholic (I’ll ignore the fact that this is not strictly to true, and that it was going to protestant churchs which you are refering to) was not a sin in it’s own rigth, but a sin because it violated Church law which was put in place as an attempt to protect it’s members from heresy. 

  • Jeannine

    Of course you can be cremated on the condition that you believe in the resurrection of the body & that your relatives realize your ashes must be treated with respect by burying them in an approved location. No placing them on the fireplace mantel for decoration or mixing them with another person’s ashes, both actions my cousin did to my aunt’s & uncle’s. Please make sure your priest knows your wishes to prevent any possible problems.

  • Patrick_Hadley

    As these boxes get smaller and smaller it it impossible to conduct a proper debate, and indeed we are Off Topic (my fault). So in brief, as far as slavery and torture are concerned – are really you saying that the Church’s teaching has not totally changed? And the Church was not at the forefront of change, it was on the side of the slaveowners in the US Civil War.   Charging interest was condemned as evil per se because of the nature of money, read Aquinas, and it was sinful even to question this teaching.  Pius IX listed saying that it could be right to rebel against a king or prince as number 63 in the Syllabus of Errors. As for prayer led by non-Catholics look at this summary of traditional Catholic teaching on the issue http://www.latinmassmagazine.com/articles/articles_2006_AC_Allan.html

    that participation in schismatic and heretic worship is “universally prohibited by natural and divine law…[about which] no one has the power to dispense…[and with respect to this participation] nothing excuses.”

  • Seangough

    Do doubt it has developed, but even dogma(which you gave your assent to earlier) develops. Just think of the beleif in the Second coming, or the Mass or so many things. Have they altered in their essense, no. Have they altared in the way we understand it and approach it, yes. None of the stuff you have just mentioned is part of the Magesterium, even the syllabus of errors. To quote John Henry Newman ‘The Syllabus then has no dogmatic force; it addresses us, not in its separate portions, but as a whole, and is to be received from the Pope by an act of obedience, not of faith,’

    I dont understand why you think the church is not infallable on issues of morality. It has taught authoritivly on such isues since it’s inception, and it was given the authority to do by Christ himself. Just pick up the acts of the apostles and the epistles if you dont want to take my word for it.

  • buckingham88

     Where I come from there is a shortage of burial sites in Catholic parts of cemeterys.My father wants to be cremated so he can be placed with my late mother in a single grave.Put it in your will to make your wishes clear and get the local PP to witness it.This will make sure everyone is on the same page.
    The Church seems to respond to the problems of the age with its edicts.It is always interesting that some who have no problem accepting evolutionary biology, have trouble recognising evolution of doctrine and practice in the Church.Just because they do is no reason for you to make the same mistake.

  • Parasum

    I think it’s an issue largely because of the sign-value of burial. Jesus was, after all, not cremated. So if there are no pressing reasons for cremation – such as plague – the Church has a definite bias in favour of burial of the corpse in its entirety. (Which is why it used to be strongly against the dissection of cadavers for medical purposes – the Body of Jesus was not cut up, therefore, neither should those of the faithful.) There is no implication that the Church doubts the power of God to raise those who have been eaten by cannibals or animals  – but the Church likes leaving as little distance between Christian burial, & that of Jesus, as possible. So although those who have died in exotic ways will be raised by the power of God, the disposal of *their* mortal remains is not the Church’s pattern for disposing of the remains of the faithful – whereas the burial of Jesus certainly is.

    The argument from symbolism can be pushed too far – but it’s a good argument otherwise. Perhaps especially in a Church which has to a great extent lost its symbolic language. Signs & symbols matter – especially for a sacramental & liturgical Church, such as the CC.

  • daclamat

    With the consent of my family I have bequeathed my body to the local medical school. “Do this in memory of me!” I seem to remember Jesus said. He surely approves my saying “This is my body, for you”. Many young people will learn about the wonder of the human being, and will save lives.  I haven’t noticed the Church encouraging this kind of gift. My first reason was a profound disgust at the gobbledygook one often hears at requiems; the second was profound gratitude towards the young medical staff who brought me back from the edge after a complete breakdown of my sytems, physical and psychological.

  • http://www.catholictruthscotland.com/ EditorCT

    How little modern Catholics have in common with the traditional Catholic Church. How sad!

  • daclamat

    Sung by Yorkshiremen of the West Riding with reverence befitting psalms, the tune Cranford is in fact taken from the Old Methodist Hymn Book, Ilkla Moor Baht at  poses the essence of the theological problem.  “Tha’s bahn’ to catch thy deeath o` cowd
    Then us’ll ha’ to bury thee
    Then t’worms’ll come an` eyt thee up
    Then t’ducks’ll come an` eyt up t’worms
    Then us’ll go an` eyt up t’ducks
    Then us’ll all ha’ etten thee 
    That’s wheear we get us ooan back.
    The problem would be posed otherwise were cremation to be the norm.  However, the Magisterium could submit the matter to the Canon Law commission with a view to anathematising anatidaphagy insofar as it is chosen inodium fidei. In the meantime, our bishops might issue a pastoral letter, echoing the resounding words of John Carmel Heenan when he was Bishop of Leeds: The Faithful are warned of the grave danger of eating ducks…

  • Mills

    For many the decison to cremate over burial is simply down to cost. Burial is much more expensive. Headstones are debt inducingly expensive. And cemetaries are getting crowded too.

  • buckingham88

     A good idea.You will be treated with respect.

  • Christopher Forrester

    Cremation is about obliteration. It is about disposing of the dead in an efficient manner. It is industrial. These days we no longer cremate rubbish…it becomes land fill. Yet a human body that has been anointed, received Communion, hopefully sanctified is burnt? Why? The Nazis understood the effects of cremation…there are lakes full of ashes near the death camps. This is the symbolism we are using. The body is not holy…it is not important and plays no part in what we are of were. Ashes can be found in ash trays and fireplaces. Bones and incorruptables in shrines and reliquary. Cremation is a snub to God. It is saying we have so little thought for the Resurrection of the body we don’t really think it matters. We scream when we think of burning houses and churches with people inside. The image terifies but we then do it to our dead. The future where robots crush the skulls of the burnt dead terrifies but we do it to those we love? Isn’t cremation just a fudge for a lack of real belief in the Resurrection! Few even cremate pets but dig a little hole in the garden which they line with flowers of put a shrub over and avoid digging near. So you see. Christians do not and should not cremate!  It is obvious. It is trivial to cremate and an act of denial. I think of cats using ashes for kitty litter or ashes blowing back into hair and face when “gran” is scattered from a pier or on a hill or on a beach. Where is Gran? Everywhere!.

  • daclamat

    It is horrifying that this kind of opinion finds a comfortable place in the Catholic Church.My nephew, brother in law, father in law mother in law were cremated. I’m sickened that Forresters paranoia is allowed to besmirch my meories of dearly loved family members. Sick. Sad.

  • Parasum

    “On Ilkla’ Moor Baht ‘At” would make a much better hymn than a lot of the stuff in modren hymn-books.

    I believe “While Shepherds watched their Flocks by Night” was also sung to the tune of “Ilkla’ Moor”

  • Parasum

    That deserves more than one “like”

  • daclamat

    The tune you are referring to is Cranford, taken from the Old Methodist hymn book;  the uninitiated (I eschew racist xenophobia by not referring to them as non-Yorkshiremen) don’t get the subtle humour. No one dares use Cranford these days.
    I notice you avoid the the problem of duck eating (antatidaphagy) 

  • Bart_0117

    Do NOT send your parents and grand parents to crematorium. I can think of at least one nasty anecdote about it but I will not share it here for there may be young children reading this newspaper. However, I will say this though; would you really like to send them off into a flame that is as hellish fire can get on earth and see him/her contained in an urn no larger than your fridge? Let alone the beautiful eschatology handed down in Traditional Catholic burial, cremation is deeply inhumane and cruel. I know that from first hand experience and although I was only 13 years old, I regret not having voiced my opposition against it loudly enough. On an Easter Sunday!

  • daclamat

    On the other hand, you could make up your own mind instead of consulting arcane legislation  dreamt up by bug eyed canon lawyers who are stuck for something to do. Ashes mixed with fine sand make excellent egg timers.  On the mantel piece, with an edifying inscription such as “sic transit  gloria mundi” far from being disrespectful they can be a powerful symbol, far more edifying than trolling round the countries of Europe  with shrivelled hearts, fingers and odd bits of clothing and attributing to them marvels to nourish credulity.

  • Michael

    Cremation, like a few other issues, has more to do with how comfortable or uncomfortable we feel, rather than whether it is a sin or not as is often insinuated.  It is part of the neurotic side in our Tradition developed because of rules bwing equated with doctrine; distinctions being stem-rolled over and made to appear to be at the top of the hierarchy of truths when in fact they were only rules.