By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published November 6, 2008
While the Catholic Church places great favor on the burial of the body of the deceased, cremation has become an accepted practice when “serious reasons” present a need for it and when one’s attitude maintains respect for the sacredness of the body and belief in the resurrection of the dead.
While the practice was forbidden as late as in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Pope Paul VI issued the 1963 instruction “Piam et Constantem,” which explained that cremation is acceptable when practiced “not out of hatred of the Church or Christian customs, but rather for reasons of health, economics, or other reasons involving public or private order.”
An example of public order would be the lack of adequate space for cemeteries, as is the case in Japan and smaller countries in northern Europe, said Holy Cross Father Richard Rutherford, professor of theology and pastoral liturgy at the University of Portland in Oregon.
He then described a situation in which cremation might be pursued due to private order “beyond economics.” Perhaps an elderly parent dies in a Florida retirement home far away from the family home in Alaska where he or she wishes to be buried, he said. Family members may live in different parts of the country and plan to make the trip home for the funeral at some point.
“Cremation in Florida, perhaps following a funeral with the body present there, and transport of the cremated remains home to Alaska for a family funeral and committal in the family plot would be a reasonable request and not out of hatred,” Father Rutherford explained. “In fact, the desire to have a Catholic funeral in the parish church where the deceased had belonged before the eventual move to retirement in Florida would be a praiseworthy decision out of love of the church and Christian customs.”
Cost is often a reason for choosing cremation. However, Father Rutherford said that the cost discrepancy between a burial and cremation has lessened as “mortuaries and cremation providers (often now the same entity) are in business to provide goods and services for a profit.”
“This has driven the cost of cremation up artificially. One has to be careful.”
Cremation illustrates the interplay between Christian beliefs and cultural influences.
“Early Christians wouldn’t have conceived of it, but (cremation) is part of our world,” said Father Rutherford who co-authored “The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals.”
He is well versed on issues of Catholic funeral rites, their history, and keeping up with society’s “development of new situations with regard to death and mortal remains.”
“Culture changes,” he said, “but the basic respect for the body, its relationship with God, body and soul … is what the Catholic reality is.”
Father Rutherford has written and spoken extensively on the subject and stresses the importance of “incarnational theology” for Catholics and emphasizes the church’s long-standing view of “the integrity of the person.”
“The Catholic Church, the Catholic faith, is very incarnational. We know that in Jesus, God became fully human, and the Catholic Church makes a big deal out of it. For example, on Sundays we bow during the Creed when we say, ‘he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.’”
Affirming the dignity of and exercising respect for the body continues after death with special consideration for a person’s mortal remains, including cremated remains.
Father Rutherford spoke of how “the integrity of the body, the integrity of the vessel, is so important. … The body is not simply the soul’s cage to throw away (after death). This was a person in relationship with God. … The sacraments do not just touch the soul.”
Material from the Committee of Divine Worship of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops further explains the continued sacredness of the body after death: “This is the body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. This is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing. The human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it is hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body.”
For this reason, the church “earnestly recommends” burying the body of the deceased, according to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, but does not forbid cremation unless someone has chosen cremation to deny hope in the resurrection of the body.
When cremation is to be pursued there remains “the Catholic way” of putting to rest the cremated remains, according to Father Rutherford.
First, when possible, the preference is to hold the funeral Mass or liturgy with the body of the deceased present and at the person’s home parish as it is the place where he or she lived out the Christian life.
When the funeral liturgy or Mass is to be held in the presence of one’s cremated remains, certain practices have been adapted without losing their sense of respect for the person.
For instance, Father Rutherford explained, as with the funeral liturgy when a body is present, “some form of worthy vessel” containing the ashes is met at the church door or placed at the foot of the altar. Following the funeral rite, the committal takes place whereby the cremated remains are entombed at a cemetery or mausoleum.
Certain cultural practices in regards to cremated remains are off limits to faithful Catholics. These include the desire of some to scatter a loved one’s ashes at certain locations or to distribute them to other family members. Again, the church invokes the importance of the integrity of one’s body and the hope of resurrection for the body.
“According to the bishops’ statement, the scattering of cremated remains is not a practice we believe is appropriate or honors a person, and is therefore not permitted.”
Father Rutherford offered an historical side note relating to old and ancient relics of saints. In bygone days parts of saints’ bodies were widely distributed. This practice would seem to have violated our present understanding of the integrity of the body. “There are lots of things we did that were part of the culture in the past that we don’t do today.”
Even with the approval of cremation being over 30 years old, “many, many Catholics are uninformed,” Father Rutherford said, and added that reliable sources of information are needed when considering cremation. These may include one’s parish priest, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Web site, www.usccb.org, or the Atlanta Archdiocese Web site, www.archatl.com.