Why was cremation not accepted by the Church and now it is?
While the reality of cremation has existed for many centuries, the Church’s own allowance of cremation of the deceased is recent, and the permission to
offer a funeral with cremated remains present is even more recent. By way of explaining the use of cremation in reference to the Church’s faith, I will show why it is now allowed, but remains a secondary option to bodily burial.
First some basics of our faith: we believe in the resurrection of the body. This truth, stated in our creed, is founded upon Easter Sunday: that Jesus rose from the dead in the body. In plain terms, the tomb was empty on Easter Sunday morning. Thus, our faith proclaims that the eternal life of heaven will be lived not simply in spirit, but in the body. This resurrected body will not be an “earthly body” in the sense of being subject to weakness and death, but a “glorified body,” that will never decay or weaken. What is essential to faith is that the resurrection will be “in the body.” Let us keep these truths of faith in mind when considering the allowance for cremation.
Regarding cremation, it was in 1969 and the issuing of instructions on the funeral rites that the Church stated that “Funeral rites are to be granted to those who have chosen cremation, unless there is evidence that their choice was dictated by anti-Christian motives.” Later, in 1997, permission was given by the Holy See (the Vatican) to the bishops in the U.S. to allow for funerals to be celebrated with cremated remains present. While this permission was granted in light of “pastoral need,” it is important to recognize that this decision was not intended to put cremation on equal footing with bodily burial. In fact, in the funeral rite, it is stated that “although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as bodily burial.” The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the
deceased be present for the funeral rites, since “the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites.” That having been said, the instructions go on to show that there may be occasions when it is not possible for the body to be present, making cremation the only feasible choice – and therefore allowable. Examples might be in cases of tragic deaths when the body is dismembered or perhaps already in an advanced stage of decay. However, while
cremation has been made permissible, a bigger issue for every believer to consider is why anyone would ever desire cremation who believes in the dignity of the body and the eternal plan of God?
Since cremation is possible, let me give some practical guidelines to keep in mind when planning funerals: first of all, it is always necessary to uphold our faith in the resurrection of the body, mindful that our earthly body, though it is subject to decay, is a sign of the glory of God and the eternal dwelling He prepares for us. Second, it is urged that when cremation is desired, it is recommended after the funeral has taken place, so that the body can be properly honored in the funeral rites. Finally, it is
absolutely required that cremated remains be “treated with the same respect given to the human body.” Thus, the cremated remains should be in a “worthy vessel,” (which funeral directors offer) and they are to be “buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium.” It is not acceptable to keep the remains of a loved one in your home, nor is the scattering of these remains ever permissible. Rather, the urn is to be fittingly buried in a cemetery or entombed in a place designated for such (some cemeteries have “above ground” mausoleums or columbarium facilities with “niches” built into their walls for such entombment).
Our Lord’s plan is eternal life in the resurrection of the body. We do not belong to this world; we belong to God. Therefore, our treatment of the deceased is to reflect the truth that in death we return to the earth, from where God Himself will raise our bodies on the last day. To repeat: that cremation is allowed today should not be
understood as an equal option to bodily burial, as its allowance is meant to take into account special circumstances where bodily burial may be difficult or virtually
impossible to accomplish.