Catholics today are choosing cremation over the burial of the body. The numbers are on the increase in recent years due to economic reasons, perceived ecological concerns space limitations in some places. But are these good reasons to chose cremation of the body? The Church's allowance of cremation is given by exception with a strong preference for the entombment of the body (either in the ground or a masoleum). Why? Principally because cremation does not fully express a Christian's belief in the Resurrection of the body on the Last Day.
Though permitted by the Catholic Church, cremation is not the preferred way of caring for the deceased (Order of Christian Funerals Appendix, 414). The Church retains the value of imitating Jesus' own burial prior to His Resurrection. We believe that in death "life has changed, not ended." Hence, the human body has a dignity and this dignity is expressed liturgically through the funeral rites of the Church. The sacred Liturgy is the expression of what we believe and our hope in God's promises. Think of the ritual actions of the family and friends gathering for a wake (keeping vigil), prayers, the processions, blessing with holy water, the burning of incense, the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass for the soul of the deceased and then burial. Those who say that they follow Christ and believe in Him as Savior normally imitate what he did as they closely adhere to what He said and how He did things. The further develop this idea an appeal to the reasonableness of Church teaching is necessary. The US Bishops' document "Reflections on the Body, Cremation, and Catholic Funeral Rites" (1997) states the following about the body: "This is the Body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. Our identity and self-consciousness as a human person are expressed in and through the body... Thus, the Church's reverence and care for the body grows out of a reverence and concern for the person who the Church now commends to the care of God."
What is cremation? Cremation is the taking of the dead body and reducing it to ash and bone fragments by the application of intense heat (in excess of 1400 degrees) and the pulverization of what remains. The ash and bone pieces are placed in an urn.
The practice of cremation was normal in the pagan world prior to the Resurrection of Jesus and in the early of Christianity. But because the earlier followers of Christ and belief in bodily resurrection the practice waned. Eventually, it was rejected as an accepted practice by the Church because cremation became a method of rejecting Christian belief in Christ's resurrection, our own resurrection on the last day and the rejection of the body as sacred. The presence and popularity of the Masons and their rejection of fundamental Catholic belief, the Church taught that cremation was prohibited. You can trace the clear teaching from the French Revolution.
The Church respects the body, the living and the dead. Regarding the dead, the Church states that "The dying should be given attention and care to help them live the last moments in dignity and peace. They will be helped by the prayer of their relatives , who must see to it that the sick receive at the proper time the sacraments that prepare them to meet the living God. The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy, it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit (Catechism 2299-2300).
With the passage of time, the Church in an effort to recognize the legitimate needs of her children, changed her teaching with the publication of a 1963 decree of Blessed John XXIII relaxing the restrictions if Catholic teaching is maintained. At the Catechism of the Catholic Church the Church said, "The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denail of faith in the resurrection of the body" (2301). And the Code of Canon Law (1983) states: "The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching" (1176).
Some might say the Church has strong "feelings" on cremation. The Church's teaching has nothing to do with feelings. And the Church's preference is not one opinion among many nor is it akin to having a preference for a porterhouse steak over hamburger. What happens to the body after death is based on solid sacramental theology and two millennia of experience.
In sum, what is expected (hoped for):
1. the offering of prayer and sacraments for the dying, especially at the time of death
2. the showing of respect for the deceased with regard to preparing the body for a wake
3. the praying of the Office of the Dead and prayers for the dead at the wake
4. the offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass in Church in the presence of the body
5. the burial of the body or the cremation of the body and then the burial of the cremains
6. the daily praying for the soul, the periodic offering of Mass for the soul of the deceased and visiting the cemetery, especially during the month of November, the Month of All Souls.
While three members of my family chose cremation as a burial option, my family was attentive to the sacramentality of the body and Catholic burial rituals (wake, Mass with the body present & burial of the ashes in the local Catholic cemetery.
Funny that Net TV posted on this subject and that I am posting about it today given that just the other day my mother told me that a long time family friend distributed the ashes of her parents to her family and friends in zip-lock bags. Honestly, I heard of of such wierd and disrespectful things happening but I thought the stories were fiction. Such actions (distributiing the cremains, making jewlery out of the cremains or placing the cremains on the mantle or in a home closet) clearly show a rejection (subtle as it may be) of the blessedness of the human body and it being a temple of the Holy Spirit. I am, quite frankly, a bit crazed by the practice of doing any but what the Church asks to be done with the cremains.
Watch the news story "The Church on Cremantion"