Catholics are permitted to cremate, but this doesn't make it the best choice.
As part of the octave of All Souls, Catholics around the world consider how we can better pray for and honor our departed loved ones. In that spirit, it seems appropriate to address an issue that arises with some frequency today: how should Catholics regard cremation?
As I see it, there are really two questions that should be considered. First, does the Church permit cremation? And second, is it something Catholics should do? Is it a good and fitting way for Catholics to honor their departed loved ones?
The answer to the first is that the Church does permit cremation, provided the remains are properly interred. A 1963 concession, included in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, specified that cremation was permitted so long as it was not chosen “for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching." So Catholics can now be cremated without violating the law of the Church. However, they may not have their ashes scattered over the ocean or kept in an urn on the mantelpiece. Remains must be stored in a respectful vessel and buried or entombed, exactly as an embalmed body would be.
Is cremation a good thing? Should Catholics choose it? Drawing on the broader Catholic tradition, it seems clear that cremation should be reserved for exceptional cases in which there are strong pragmatic reasons for burning a body (most obviously, to prevent the spread of infectious disease). Neither cremation nor burial is a Sacrament, so the significance of the choice is mainly symbolic and not metaphysical. Nevertheless, as Christians, we should when possible choose burial as a more fitting way of honoring our loved ones in keeping with our faith.
Our Lord Jesus Christ was buried in a tomb, and rose again to life. We too will eventually be resurrected, so it is fitting that we too should be buried. God in his power can of course resurrect a person whose remains have been destroyed by fire. Nevertheless, burial better expresses our hope in God’s redeeming grace, and in our expectation of new life.
When I stand in a cemetery, I see in my mind’s eye the dead lying beneath the ground, waiting to be called. Their bodies, created in God’s image and in a form that he himself deigned to take on, have not simply been discarded. They will be taken up again, in a more glorious form. Burial helps us to appreciate these truths, and to train our sensibilities towards death in a more Catholic way. This is why the early Christians insisted on burying their dead (though this was not the custom of their time) and why burial was consistently preferred throughout Christendom, and sometimes also mandated by religious or civil law. Prior to 1963, Catholics who requested cremation were denied a Catholic funeral. And even while changing that law, the 1963 concession “earnestly recommended” burial as a more fitting custom.
Cremation, by contrast, has strong associations with pantheism, nihilism and the outright rejection of the material. Some Eastern religions teach that the dead simply cease to exist as discrete persons; cremation thus symbolizes the disintegration of the individual as such. Others, like the Greeks and Romans, see the body mainly as a discarded shell. Still others, like the Freemasons, have recommended cremation explicitly as a means of denying Christian belief in the Resurrection.
Why do Americans choose cremation today? Sadly, many people are simply looking for the quickest and cheapest way of disposing of a body. Advocates of cremation point out that cremation can save money that would otherwise be spent on funerals, viewings, and burial plots. Also, it saves land space. I have heard elderly people use arguments like these as they earnestly explain their desire to be cremated. In their eagerness to relieve others of the burden of funeral preparations, they fail to consider the emotional and spiritual needs of those they will leave behind.
I personally find it a little bit heartbreaking that people should be so relentlessly focused on ease and convenience that they can hardly spare a thought for commemorating the dead. Keep in mind, before giving these kinds of instructions to family, that your surviving relations may want to take a little trouble over you. Honoring the lives of parents, grandparents or other relatives is the kind of “blessed burden” that can bring comfort to the bereaved.
The appeal of cremation probably also says something about the rootlessness of people today. Christians with a strong connection to a particular earthly place normally want to be buried there. Today, however, people are continually changing their address, and that may increase their desire to be literally scattered to the winds in death. It is also possible that modern people, because they have such difficulty disciplining the bodily appetites, are especially attracted to the symbolic “discarding” the body in the post-mortem. The body feels like more of a weight than a blessing to the soul, so it seems better to live without it.
As Christians, we know better than to indulge these errors. Though subject to the effects of the fall, our bodies are still good; that’s how God made them. They will accompany us in perfected form through all eternity. And, as St. Paul told the Corinthians, the last enemy to be destroyed shall be death. In anticipation of that day, we should bury our beloved dead, and hope for good things to come.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas and writes for Crisis Magazine and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter at @rclu.