What Does the Catholic Church Say About Cremation?

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Each faith group has its own traditions and regulations on how to commemorate the life of someone who dies. Those adhering to the Catholic faith have some of the most clearly-stated recommendations, which are the same for Catholics all over the world. Because of these clear expectations, a Catholic funeral in Uganda would look very similar to a Catholic funeral in Los Angeles. 

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The Roman Catholic Church allows for cremation in certain scenarios, but overall it has been clearly stated that the leadership at the Vatican prefers burial over cremation.

Throughout the world, cremation has gained popularity. In fact, more bodies are cremated than buried now. Has the popularity of cremation altered the Church’s view of cremation? 

Let’s discuss the Vatican’s stance on Catholic cremation and whether it affects the believer’s salvation and what the Catholic Church says is an appropriate way to disperse the cremains. 

What is the Catholic Church’s Stance on Cremation? 

The Vatican’s website states that the “Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places.” 

There are many reasons that the Catholic Church prefers burial. Here is a summary of the reasons that burials are preferred.

  • Burial is the most appropriate way “to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.” 
  • The Church commits the body of a believer to the earth as “the seed of the body that will rise in glory.”
  • Burial shows the dignity of the human body. The body is an essential part of each person’s identity, and burying it confirms faith in the resurrection.
  • Burying a body in a cemetery or another sacred place shows respect to the baptized individual. This respect is necessary because the baptized person had become a vessel of the Holy Spirit.
  • The Church considers the burial of the deceased “one of the corporal works of mercy.” This shows the high esteem that the Church has on the burial process.
  • The burial of the dead in cemeteries encourages survivors to pray for and remember the dead. 

For a complete description of the reasons that the Catholic Church prefers believers to choose burial, refer to the Vatican’s website. 

Even though the Catholic Church gives a list of reasons why burial is preferred over cremation, they also conceded that cremation might sometimes be necessary. The guidelines state that “cremation may need to be chosen because of ‘sanitary, economic, or social considerations.’” 

For example, if burial is not an immediate option, or if the deceased does not have funds for a casket and a burial, a direct cremation may be allowed. The family members can be assured that being cremated does not affect the soul in any way if done for the right reasons. 

There are some caveats to this rule, though:

  • Families should never have a loved one cremated if the deceased had stated or implied that burial was preferred. 
  • Catholics should not choose cremation because they see it as the “definitive annihilation of the person.” 
  • Cremation should not be chosen in an attempt to fuse the body with nature or the universe.
  • A person should not choose cremation because they see it as a “stage in the cycle of regeneration.”
  • Finally, a person should not choose cremation because they see it is a way to free themselves from the “prison” of the body. 

To sum up, the leaders of the Catholic Church prefer that believers choose burial instead of cremation. Cremation is allowed if there is a good reason. If a Catholic is cremated for sanitary, economic, or social situations, the act of cremation will not affect a person’s ability to go to paradise.

ยป MORE: If you've lost someone, it's not always clear what comes next. These next steps are here for you.

 

When Did the Catholic Church Start to Allow Cremation?

The Catholic Church began to allow cremation in 1963. Pope Paul VI was the head of the Catholic Church during this time. 

The most current set of guidelines, called Ad resurgendum cum Christo (to rise with Christ), gave more specific instructions on what to do with the cremains. Pope Francis approved it in March of 2016. 

The name of the document refers to the belief of life after death. This belief is expressed in the liturgy of the church, which states, “Indeed for your faithful, Lord, life is changed not ended, and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust, an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.” 

The Church teaches that the soul is separated from the person’s body after death, but in the “resurrection, God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul.” 

These essential beliefs are integral to the Catholic Church. The guidelines for burial and cremation are all based on these core beliefs. 

What’s the Catholic Church’s View on Scattering Ashes?

The Catholic Church’s official publications say that if cremation is chosen for legitimate motives, the ashes “must be laid to rest in a sacred place.” This place can include a cemetery, church, or an area “dedicated by the competent ecclesial authority.”

There are several reasons for this cited by the Catholic Church.

  • If the ashes are kept in a sacred place, this would assure that the ashes are “not excluded from the prayers of the Christian community.” 
  • Another reason that ashes should be kept in a sacred place is that it keeps the deceased from being forgotten, which could happen if the cremains are scattered to the wind.
  • The Church says that scattering ashes shows a lack of respect for the individual. 
  • The Church also states that keeping the cremains in a sacred place “prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices.”

If that language and those reasons are not clear enough, the document continues. It spells out what Catholics should not do with their loved one’s ashes.

  • Keeping the ashes in a “domestic residence” is not permitted. 
  • Dividing the ashes among family members is not permitted.
  • Ashes should not be scattered in the air, on land, or at sea.
  • Cremains should not be preserved in mementos or pieces of jewelry.

If your loved one was a member of the Catholic Church, you must understand the cremation requirements as outlined in documents by the Vatican. If the deceased had requested to be cremated and have his or her ashes scattered “for reasons contrary to the Christian faith,” a Catholic funeral will be denied to that person.

Of course, to understand the nuances of this guideline, make sure you consult your local priest. 

Tip: One option to consider is solidifying the ashes to create cremation stones with Parting Stone. These are stones made up of your loved one's ashes, which you can then place in nature, bury, or keep at home. They're the perfect size for holding in your hands to feel close to the departed. Of course, you'll need to consult with your priest to determine whether or not this is in keeping with your religious beliefs. 

What Does the Catholic Church Say You Can Do Instead of Scattering Ashes?

Catholics who choose cremation because of sanitary, economic, or social considerations may wonder what to do with the cremains. Catholics may have their ashes buried in a cemetery or placed in a church or an “area set aside for this purpose.” It is assumed that this means that Catholics can choose to have their remains entombed in columbarium niches or garden walls built for that purpose. 

The ashes should be placed in an appropriate container as well.

The Church wants to distance itself from scattering because even if done for the right intentions, scattering may have the appearance of “pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism.”

Make Appropriate Cremation Decisions 

It should go without saying that the decision on how to commemorate your loved one’s passing should not be made lightly, especially if one is a member of the Catholic Church. Some of these decisions may affect the eternity of the individual. 

If you have any questions regarding what is appropriate, consult the documents on the Vatican’s website. You may also talk with a member of the clergy.

If you are preparing for your own eventual death, make sure your loved ones understand your desires. Share your end-of-life plans with your family members so they know whether you would prefer to be buried or cremated, where you would like your remains to rest, and what music you want to be played at your funeral service. 

Sharing these decisions will ensure that your choices will be followed, but they will also assist your loved ones. Making decisions regarding funeral arrangements is never an easy process for survivors and it is much nicer if the choices had already been made for them.


Sources

  1. “Instruction Ad resurgendum cum Christo regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation.” The Vatican. www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20160815_ad-resurgendum-cum-christo_en.html

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