By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 8, 2013
ATLANTA—Respect for the dignity of deceased loved ones is paramount in the Catholic Church, whether people are cremated or interred bodily in a plot or tomb.
While cremation is permitted, the Catholic Church prefers traditional burial.
One reason is because Jesus was buried.
Christians are called to “pray to him, worship him, and imitate him, even in death,” Father James Donohue said. And burial of the body is a way to walk with him, said Father Donohue, who studies the liturgical prayers and sacraments for the sick and the dying, while he serves as a theology professor at Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, Md. He is the chair of the theology department.
Another reason is the belief that a person’s body is sacred. The Order of Christian Funerals, which guides priests and deacons presiding at funerals, also says the body is “inextricably associated with the human person.”
Later, the guide states, “It is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing.”
The church initially prohibited the practice of cremation out of concern people were choosing it from an anti-Christian perspective, such as denying the essential Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. The ban was relaxed as that fear lessened. Now, Father Donohue said, even his religious order, the Congregation of the Resurrection, offers the choice of cremation to its members to save space in the order’s cemetery.
Since the Catholic Church in the early 1960s lifted its ban on cremation, the practice has become increasingly popular. Nearly four out of 10 people who die are cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
A motivating factor today for cremation is the high cost of preparation of the body for burial and other associated expenses. There are alternatives to traditional burials besides cremation. There are also growing options such as “green” cemeteries, which offer simpler natural burials that are less costly.
New York priest Father Kenneth Doyle, in a syndicated question and answer column, said the 1963 change lifted the ban on cremation but did not allow any prayer or ritual to be used with the cremated remains.
According to Father Doyle, the U.S. bishops in 1997 received permission from the Vatican to have memorial Masses celebrated in the presence of cremated remains.
“Today, at a memorial Mass, the ‘cremains,’ as they are called, are most often placed on a small table near the altar and in front of the paschal candle, which reminds mourners of Christ’s resurrection and our own,” he wrote.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains 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. … The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.” (No. 2300)
If people choose cremation, the cremated remains must be treated with the same respect as the body, in the eyes of the church.
The church is concerned with cremated remains that there is a chance the remains may be mishandled, Father Donohue said. He said he knows of a diocese that received a package of cremated remains sent by family members who cleaned out a house and did not know where else to deliver them. He also knows funeral homes market jewelry that holds cremated remains as a keepsake.
“The church really does want the cremated remains to be buried or put in a columbarium,” he said.
Scattering ashes or keeping the remains at home “are not the reverent disposition that the church requires,” states the guide to the funeral rites.
But parishes offering memorial gardens, where cremated remains are interred in an appropriate vessel, or columbarium, where the remains are placed in an aboveground niche, can be an opportunity to help believers, Father Donohue said.
These sites are “really an extension of the church,” Father Donohue said. In older Christian areas, it was common that people of influence could be buried in the church and these new sites can revive the custom, he said.
“It really goes back to the idea of sacred ground. It is really different than being in a cemetery that is far from the parish,” he said.
The presence of a memorial garden or columbarium can be a spiritual aid to the whole church community, he said.
“We do need to be reminded about the communion of the saints. We do need to be reminded that we are here temporarily,” he said.
Father Donohue celebrated Mass once where the remains were interred in a columbarium on church grounds. He said it was quite moving to see the faith community move from the church to the niche.
Too often now, people attend the Mass but think the burial is reserved for family, he said. It is important that the community be with the family and survivors throughout the funeral and burial.
“The whole idea of accompanying the person right to the burial is a wonderful, wonderful gesture,” he said. “I think that’s really quite wonderful” when someone can be buried so close to the church, he said.