Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Dear Father Tharp,
I was recently discussing cremation with my mother who is not Catholic and she asked me what the Church’s teaching is on cremation. I looked in the Catechism for direction, but I was not able to locate information regarding the specific question we were hoping to find answered. What does the Church teach about cremation and spreading of ashes? Thank you for any information you may direct my way.
Tami Young, Edmond, OK

Perhaps we need to make a small distinction here at the outset, to avoid any possible confusion. The Church proposes various matters of doctrine which she, through the act of Revelation and the work of the Magisterium, professes as part and parcel of her being the Bride of Christ. These teachings have necessary, practical consequences in the lives of Christians. They result in various outward expressions or practices that constitute the outward expression of one’s own professed Faith. The key distinction rests on the fact that the Church’s doctrines do not change, but her practices often do and must in order to address new issues that confront the Church as she proceeds through history. Hence, in your question, you have both realities competing for space. On the one hand, we need to understand what the Church teaches about the nature of the human body and the nature of death. Only after that can we point to what practices are acceptable when disposing of someone’s mortal remains.

The Church teaches that the body is a constitutive element of being human. Unlike much of the pagan, pre-Christian philosophy which treated the body, and all things material, as a prison for the spirit, the Church recognized that man is a unified or composite being, a being of body (material) and soul (spiritual). It is through the body that we make the reality of our personhood known and experienced. It is with human hands, human language, and human gestures that the greatest and most noble expressions of our humanity come to light. When we combine this natural notion of the body with the reality of the Incarnation, a greater light dawns. Man, body and soul, participates in the very life of God by virtue of the Lord’s coming and assuming to Himself a human nature.

Because of Original Sin, death entered the world. For the Church, death is the soul separating from the body. This is significant as it is the soul’s power as the animating and personal principle which allowed the body, in life, to be more than a bag of bones. The mortal remains signal the truth that the one we knew and loved, the real person we had encountered, is gone. With that said, it doesn’t mean that the body suddenly loses its meaning. Instead, we are called to respect the mortal remains of the deceased precisely because they were so integral with the person in question. At the same time, though, we know that death is not the end. Rather, we wait to rise as Christ rose from the dead, in a real body like the one we possessed before, albeit glorified, again as our Lord’s own body was glorified in the Resurrection.

In practice, then, when disposing of someone’s mortal remains after death, nothing can be done which would suggest either a denial of the Resurrection or a disrespectful attitude toward the body (CCC #2301; Code of Canon Law c. 1176, §3). Hence, for many years, cremation was not permitted. In recent times, especially in many countries where scarcity of available land restricts the building of new cemeteries or where infectious disease remain a problem, the Church has seen fit to permit cremation under the circumstances mentioned above, i.e. that the cremation is not being performed in order to disrespect the body or deny the bodily Resurrection of the dead. Generally speaking, it is preferred that cremation take place after the funeral liturgy so that the body may be present (GIOCF #418).

It should then come as no surprise that while the body may be cremated, the ashes cannot be scattered as though they were of no consequence (CCC #2300). Regardless of its condition, those ashes are still the mortal remains of a person for whom Christ died and who, in their body, made evident their being created in God’s image and likeness. As the General Instruction for the Order of Christian funerals clearly states: “The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in thehome of a relative or friend of the deceased are not reverent disposition that the Church requires” (GIOCF #417). The urn containing the ashes should be interred either in a mausoleum or grave. The ashes may also be buried at sea, so long as the urn is sealed and the body deposited intact.


Blogger DilexitPrior said...

I found this post interesting, particularly in light of the fact that last night, bored and surfing the internet, I came across the same topic reading through "Guidelines for Funerals & Burials" for my archdiocese. I don't know how I really came across that section of the website, since no one has died recently, but anyways, they included a section on cremation, in which the site quoted canon 1176.

"The Church, through the centuries, has followed the practice of burial or entombment after the manner of Christ's own burial - out of respect for the human body as a member of Christ and because of faith in the resurrection. It remains the express will of the Church that this hallowed and traditional practice be maintained. "The Church earnestly recommends that 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" (canon 1176, § 3)."

Based on this, could it be said that cremation is the ideal then? The site I was reading stated that "it is the responsibility of the priest to verify the proper motivation and to determine that those arranging for the funeral have made satisfactory provision for the cremated remains."

My subsequent question then would be, what is a "proper motivation" for cremation as opposed to burial?

The site I was looking at by the way was for the Archdiocese of Vancouver (Canada) and was very thorough.


5:26 PM  

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