By CLAIRE GILLIGAN, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 13, 2011
A Catholic interviewer recently asked Emilio Estevez why his new movie “The Way,” which is so respectfully full of Catholic imagery, has its main character (Martin Sheen) scattering the ashes of his son, a practice forbidden by Church law? Estevez answered that the “character of Tom is a lapsed Catholic. He wouldn’t be formed in canon law.”
Sheen’s character may have a passable excuse, but not so the rest of us. What does the Catholic Church teach about cremation, and why?
The short answer about cremation is that a Catholic may be cremated, so long as the reason for doing so is not contrary to the Catholic faith—though the church does prefer a traditional burial (Code of Canon Law, 1176, Section 3). The remains are to be entombed or interred in a cemetery or columbarium, and are not to be scattered or rest in a person’s house or be split between several people or be fused into jewelry.
Let’s back up and look at the why.
Every single teaching of the Catholic faith, no matter how minute, is rooted in the person of Jesus Christ. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth … God created man in his image …” (Gen 1:1, 27a). Human beings, body and soul, were always designed to be images of his divine being. Centuries later, when the Word was made flesh (Jn 1:14), human and divine were fused permanently. When our Lord suffered and died on the cross, he defeated death for all mankind, because God died, in his humanity. When he rose from the dead, he was not a ghost but fully human, with a human body—glorified and perfected, but authentic, as evidenced by his apostles touching his hands and side (Lk 24:38-40; Jn 20:24-29), and by the food he ate with them (Lk 24:41-43; Jn 21:13-14). It was not his spirit alone that was resurrected, but his body with his soul, united just as he was before his death. When his time to visit his apostles on earth was again completed, he did not die but ascended into heaven. He who came down to earth a spiritual God ascended into heaven both body and spirit.
Heaven is not a place where we turn into angels or our spirits float around lazily. In heaven, the second Person of the Holy Trinity is bodily present, and we will worship him with our spirits united to our glorified bodies.
It is because of our Lord’s incarnation that we are to respect our bodies. Our bodies are not mere casings for our souls. Quite the contrary: our bodies are every bit as much a part of us as our souls are.
The church has always preferred the burial of the body to cremation because “in baptism the body was marked with the seal of the Trinity and became the temple of the Holy Spirit …” (Order of Christian Funerals, 19). Still, cremation has long been allowed for legitimate reasons (in ancient times, this usually meant war or plague—many corpses together with hygienic concerns).
In the late 19th century, however, the practice of choosing cremation specifically to deny belief in the church’s teachings (including the resurrection of the body) rose to popularity, and so in 1886 the church banned cremation. In 1963, however, it was realized that most cremations are chosen for neutral reasons like cost and mobility, and so the ban was lifted, with the caveat above.
In most cases, cremation should be done after the funeral, for the same body that was baptized and anointed and has received Communion should be honored as we pray for our beloved dead. However, the dioceses of the United States do have special permission from the Vatican to celebrate a funeral Mass in the presence of cremated remains, if the cremation must be done first.
Because the cremated remains are truly the body of the deceased, they are to be treated with the same respect as the body would be. Just as we would honor a person’s physical body by giving it a permanent resting place, so too do we honor the remains of a person who’s been cremated by giving their remains a permanent resting place.