Traditional Burial or Cremation?
The Catholic Church has always preferred traditional burial over cremation, as it better expresses the reverence and beliefs we hold regarding the human body. Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. Please read the following to understand our beliefs about the human body and when and how cremation is allowed.
All quotations are from the "Order of Christian Funerals: Appendix on Cremation", NCCB, 1997.
What we believe about the human body
As Catholics, we believe that the human person is made of a body and a soul, both of which are sacred. Our immortal soul is the invisible part of us which gives us life. Our mortal body is the visible part of us which communicates that life to all around us. We know each others' souls because of what our bodies show: smiles, caresses, acts of kindness, singing, dancing, etc. St. John Paul II explained this by saying, "The body reveals the person." Our reverence for the body is expressed in the Sacraments: the body is "washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the Bread of Life" (n. 412). We believe that the body is so truly a part of "who we are" that the soul is not meant to be without it forever, and at the end of time our bodies will be reunited with our souls in the resurrection of the body.
Why we prefer traditional burial
St. Paul and the earliest Christians often referred to Christians who had passed away as "those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor. 15:18). They believed that the bodies of the dead would one day be reunited with their souls in heaven, just as Christ's body was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven. Traditional burial has always been a way that Christians placed the bodies of "those who have fallen asleep" to rest until they are raised again. Cremation, on the other hand, represented in non-Christian religions either the soul being freed from the body as from a prison, or the end of the individual's existence altogether. It is because of our deep reverence for the human body as a part of who we are, and our hope in the resurrection, that we prefer to "lay our brother/sister to rest" in traditional burial.
When we allow cremation
Though the Church prefers traditional burial, she allows cremation when the following conditions are met:
- Whenever possible, the body should be present for the funeral. It can be subsequently cremated, either immediately following the funeral or at a later time.
- The remains must be stored in a worthy vessel (an urn which is made of solid material, beautiful, and dignified).
- The remains must be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium.
- The remains may not be scattered on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or kept in the home of a relative of friend. No part of the remains should be separated out from the whole (eg. kept in a locket).
- Whenever possible, a memorial plaque or stone should mark the place where the remains are buried.
"The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine." (Code of Canon Law n. 1176.3)