A selection of urns are seen on display in the mortuary at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Lafayette, Calif. The Catholic Church allows cremation but it must be carried out in a dignified, reverential manner. CNS photo/Greg Tarczynski

With cremation, we must maintain dignity

By  Fr. John Hibbard, Catholic Register Special
  • November 2, 2014

Years ago, cremation was forbidden for Catholics because those who popularized the practice did it as a way of denying the resurrection of Christ, life after death and the resurrection of the body at the end of time. Their thought was to destroy the body so that God could not resurrect it. 

Today, cremation is allowed because so few people are motivated by a desire to deny the Resurrection. However, if cremation is chosen, it is still the preference of the Catholic Church to bring the body to the church for the funeral Mass and then cremate it before burial. 

It was God who created the human body, and so it is God’s creation that we bring to the church. It was this same body that was cleansed in the waters of baptism in the church’s font, anointed with the Oil of Sacred Chrism as a temple of the Holy Spirit, nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, and anointed with the Oil of the Sick. In other words, just as we are saved in and through our body, so it is this body that we honour as a vessel of God’s grace, which dwells in the Church’s liturgy. 

Practices change and there are new developments. Many people cannot afford the full funeral service that the Church desires. A church funeral involves extra expense, and some are tempted to cremate the body immediately after death without embalming or buying a casket. Others are forced into this choice by financial necessity. In these situations, when the body of the deceased is cremated before the funeral, Catholics need to be aware of several things. 

Generally speaking, throughout the universal Church, a funeral Mass in the presence of the cremated remains is forbidden. (In this case, the Mass is celebrated without the cremated remains being present.) Catholics in Canada, however, have received permission (an indult) from the Holy See (Vatican) to celebrate the funeral Mass in the presence of the cremated remains. The only requirement is that a priest obtain permission of the bishop of the diocese. This permission is required to ensure that cremation was not motivated by a denial of Church teaching regarding Christ, the Resurrection or eternal life on the part of the deceased. 

Nevertheless, one of the results of the widespread practice of cremation is that it can diminish our sensitivity to the dignity of the deceased person and their remains. That is, while we would never think of embalming a loved one to keep them in our home, people are doing this with the cremated remains of their loved ones. Some divide the cremated remains among relatives or enclose them in jewellery to be worn by family members. 

No doubt, in part this stems from an emotional response to a great loss, but is it respecting the person who has died? Are we not treating their remains as a “thing” or “decoration” rather than as a person. We would never do this with the body of the deceased. Why would we think of doing it with the cremated remains? 

The Final Commendation of the funeral Mass entrusts the loved one into the hands of almighty God who created the person and gave that person to us for a period of time on Earth. In a sense, trying to hang on to the person ultimately is a way of not letting this person return to God and to the earth from which He made us. Indeed it is a true sacrifice to offer the person back to God. Might it be a misguided act of selfishness to attempt to hang on to the person and use their remains for our own emotional comfort or support? 

On another level, we might ask if, unwittingly, we are forgetting about the resurrection of the body by dividing up the cremated remains or refusing Christian burial to them. Christians have always buried their dead in cemeteries because they believe that on the last day our mortal remains will be recreated from the dust of the earth and will be reunited with our souls so that we may reign with Christ in heaven with a glorified body like His own and in the body that God originally created. 

With so much emphasis on the spirit of the person ascending to God, have we forgotten about the resurrection of the dead at the end of time? 

At death and burial the life cycle of the deceased is not finished; God has plans for our body. Let our faith be put into action by placing the cremated remains in a cemetery. In this way we are professing our faith in God’s great and marvellous plans for us at the end of time. 

Burial in a cemetery also gives us a place to visit our loved ones. As sensory people, we need a place to focus our love when we visit the dead. Ashes spread to the winds, even in a favourite place of the deceased, denies us a physical location and permanent physical reminder of the deceased. Imagine for a moment the last Day: Christ returns to raise the bodies of all the dead. Can we visualize them rising together from the cemetery. Will your loved one be there to rise from the dead? 

One must also reflect on the respect and honour we owe to and must accord the human body and its remains. Is it respectful to treat our loved ones like a decoration or a piece of furniture or jewellery? How many urns with the ashes of our loved ones are sitting on mantels waiting to be accidentally spilled or forgotten about over the years or discarded when no one is left to remember? What happens to the jewellery containing the remains of a human person when we lose it or die ourselves? 

These may be disturbing questions, but they are situations that funeral directors, priests and deacons are facing when people come to make funeral arrangements. Perhaps we requested our ashes be scattered or divided or not buried or requested it for others because we forgot about the resurrection of the body. 

However, even when economic circumstances force us to cremate a loved one, we do not have to forget the dignity, reverence and honour we owe them and their mortal remains. 

(Fr. Hibbard is pastor of Queen of the Most Holy Rosary parish in Belleville, Ont.) 

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.