My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
During the month of November, we pray in a special way for “our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection,” as we say in Eucharistic Prayer II. It is fitting, therefore, that this Nov. 1 issue of Catholic Times looks at the Catholic Funeral Rite and why we should pray for the dead.
Death is an uncomfortable topic in our contemporary culture. We avoid talking about it and employ euphemisms to mask our discomfort. Rather than say someone has died, we say that he or she has “passed away.” Instead of wakes and funerals, people prefer to call such services a “celebration of life.” Cemeteries are renamed “memorial gardens.”
There is nothing wrong with celebrating a person’s life or remembering them after they have died, but a theological and pastoral problem that emerges with such changes in terminology is that “celebrations of life,” “memorial gardens” and “memorial Masses” all look to the past. Christian burial practices, on the other hand, look to the future in anticipation of our bodily resurrection and eternal life.
Another indicator of our culture’s ambivalence about death is the increasing frequency of cremation. According to the Cremation Association of North America, in a 17-year span from 2002 to 2019, the cremation rate almost doubled from 28.2 percent to 54.6 percent. Illinois is among those states where more than half of those who die are cremated. This rapid growth in the rate that cremation is chosen is a matter of pastoral concern and is worthy of attention.
In his thesis on Cremation and Catholicism, written in 2015 for his licentiate degree in Canon Law (J.C.L.), Father Joshua Ehli, now rector of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, N.D., has provided a comprehensive overview of the history of cremation. He traces the origins of the practice of cremation back nearly 5,000 years with an initial concentration in the East, most notably in India. The main reasons attributed to the practice of cremation were belief in reincarnation, the transportation of cremated remains during migration or in wartime, protection from epidemic, and even punishment for serious crimes.
Although at first the ancient Greeks and Romans practiced bodily burial, this shifted over time. By the time Homer wrote the Iliad, about 750 B.C., cremation was for the Greeks the leading mode of disposal of the dead. Plato and Aristotle developed the philosophical underpinnings of the Greek perception of death in which the soul became irreparably separated from the body at death. The dualistic split of body and soul viewed death as the moment when the immortal soul was set free from the prison-house of the physical body. Cremation became a consistent practice among those who held little or no value in the material body. Thus, for much of its history cremation has carried with it either an explicit or implicit denial of bodily resurrection.
The Greek perception made its way to Rome, where cremation gained predominance by the first century B.C.
In contrast, cremation was not practiced among certain peoples, most notably the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and Jews, except for very few exceptions. For the Jewish people, cremation was strictly avoided due to their belief in the possibility of bodily resurrection, which for them was an actual reversal of death and not a reincarnation into a new life.
The early Christians were insistent on burying their dead for two main reasons: to be consistent with the Jewish practice they inherited and in imitation of the strong precedent laid down through the bodily burial of Jesus prior to his resurrection. Bodily burial served symbolically to uphold the Christian teaching about the resurrection of the dead, and cremation was seen to be inconsistent with this belief. These convictions led the church to maintain a strong prohibition against cremation for almost 2,000 years.
In more recent centuries, French revolutionaries promoted cremation as a way to diminish Christian influences in France. Similarly, Freemasons used cremation as a direct attack against the church’s doctrine of the resurrection of the body.
As a result, when the church finally allowed cremation in certain extenuating circumstances in 1963, the Instruction De cadaverum crematione explicitly upheld the long-standing custom and preferred practice of bodily burial, while tolerating cremation for reasons such as hygiene and economics, as long as cremation was not being chosen for reasons contrary to the church.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law codified this legislation in canon 1176 §3, which says, “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.” Along these lines, canon 1184 §1, 2° says that “those who chose the cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to Christian faith must be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals unless they gave some sign of repentance before death.” As an example of a reason “contrary to the Catholic faith,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites the case of someone choosing cremation as a way to “demonstrate a denial of the faith in the resurrection of the body” (no. 2301).
Denial in the belief of the resurrection of the body can be either explicit or implicit. While it may be rare for a practicing Catholic to say explicitly that he or she is choosing cremation as a denial of the resurrection of the body, there does seem to be at times an implicit return to the Greek notion of the body as a material shell to be discarded after death, since it will not be of further use to the immortal soul. For this reason, the Catholic Church in 1997 said that cremation “does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body,” but when it does occur under the circumstances allowed by canon law, “The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium,” but should never be scattered “on the sea, from the air, or on the ground.” The reason is that such scattering of ashes may be seen as an implicit denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.
For more information about Catholic burial practices, the Catholic Cemetery Conference has developed a series of comprehensive videos and educational materials called, Catholic Burial Traditions: Promoting a Culture of Christian Burial. These materials are free and available online at www.catholicburialtraditions.org. I hope this information will help bring you to a better understanding of our Catholic traditions.
May God give us this grace. Amen.