Father Jim Fenstermaker: What Today’s Catholics Should Know About Cremation

In the early church, cremation was seen as a rejection of the doctrine of the Resurrection. In 1963, the Catholic Church ended its ban on cremation, provided that the reason for choosing cremation was not contrary to Christian beliefs. In this change, the body was still to be present for the Mass of Christian Burial (the actual name for a Catholic funeral Mass), with cremation to follow. The 1997 revision of the Order of Christian Funerals, however, allowed the cremated remains to be included as part of the funeral rite in the church. This change was made out of a pastoral sensitivity for the increasing number of people choosing to cremate the body of a loved one immediately after death yet still seeking a Catholic funeral.

The church still strongly recommends the traditional burial of the dead. The earlier 1989 revised Order of Christian funerals states, “Since in Baptism the body was marked with the seal of the Trinity and became the temple of the Holy Spirit, Christians respect and honor the bodies of the dead and the places where they rest…” This is emphasized in the Mass of Christian Burial by the sprinkling of the casket with holy water and its draping with the white pall.

If the funeral liturgy is to be celebrated with the cremated remains, they are contained in a “worthy vessel” and placed on a table where the casket normally would reside. The paschal candle (a symbol of Christ’s resurrection) is placed, as usual, in that location. Scripture readings chosen by the family should not make any reference to the body.

After the funeral rite, a very important issue is the disposition of the cremated remains, which should be buried in the ground or entombed in a columbarium (a cemetery vault designed for urns). The remains should be respected in the same manner, as would the body of a deceased. They should not be put on display or kept in the home of the family, nor scattered in the wind. The church expects a more reverent disposition of the earthly remains of the deceased.

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