For as long as I can remember, my grandfather used to tell my brothers and me that he wanted to be cremated. Not understanding what it was about, cremation seemed like a scary thing to me.
As I got older, I didn’t know if the Church would allow it. In the end, though, grandpa got his wish–by the time he passed away in 2000, cremation was becoming more common among Catholics.
While I was researching respectful treatment of cadavers in an anatomy lab for a story in the Catholic Spirit, I started wondering exactly how the Church looks at the body at death, what she teaches about cremation and how we’re supposed to treat a person’s cremated remains.
The Catechism states that “the bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection.” (CCC 2300) Though we don’t know if our bodies in this life will be the ones we will have in eternal life, our bodies are a gift and they deserve special care and treatment, said Dr. Paul Wojda, associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas who teaches a course in bioethics.
“The Catholic position takes the body seriously, it takes material creation seriously,” he said.” It takes the earth seriously because of its deeply sacramental significance.”
So how does cremation come into this?
For centuries the church didn’t allow cremation because it saw the practice as an open denial of the Resurrection by non-Christians, Wojda said.
Then in 1963 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified the regulation, permitting cremation in cases of necessity, but prohibiting it for anyone openly denying the faith. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states that a person may choose to be cremated if they have the right intention. (No. 1176, 3)
“It’s no longer the case that the Church frowns on it,” Wojda said. “It permits it but I wouldn’t say it’s out there promoting it. If you were cremated that used to be a clear sign that you were not religious, or not Christian or not Catholic but that’s no longer the case.”
While she permits cremation, the Church does not approve of scattering a loved one’s ashes or keeping them at home in an urn.
According to the Order of Christian Burial:
The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium (site for storage of cinerary urns). The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires.
Burial at sea is permitted, however. A person’s cremated remains “may be properly buried at sea in the urn, coffin or other container in which they have been carried to the place of committal.” (OCF 416)
A big problem with scattering someone’s ashes is that there’s no specific place to honor the person, Wojda said.
Also, he said, “I think what we have to recognize is that the scattering of ashes has been used historically and even up until the 20th century as a sign of contempt for the person who died.”
My grandpa had his reasons for wanted to be cremated. I’m glad he’s buried next to my grandma in a cemetery where I can honor them both.