For the first time in America, more people are being cremated than buried, according to a groundbreaking new report. The National Funeral Directors Association discovered that 48.5% of the dearly departed were incinerated last year, compared to 45.4% of the dead who were interred. Previously, burials outnumbered burn-ups. Cremation, it turns out, is hot, with the number of cremations up 50% since 2005. At that rate, more than 70% of Americans are expected to be cremated by 2030. Canadians are even more enamored of anatomical arson, with more than 65% of our neighbors in the cold north preferring a final blast of fire. The trend in the U.S. is due to many factors: — Cremations are about one-third cheaper than traditional burials, which average around $8,500. Plus, family members who use the six-foot-under approach must maintain their loved-one’s headstones for the rest of their lives (whereupon the cycle may continue with their relatives). — Many faiths have become more accepting of cremation. The practice was frowned up by the Roman Catholic Church, whose notion that the dead will rise suggested a need to not destroy the body. But in 1963, the Vatican lifted the ban. Cremation is more commonly accepted within the Protestant church, but it’s still prohibited under Islam and the Eastern Orthodox church.
Meanwhile, here’s a helpful overview of Catholic teaching on the subject, from the Rev. William Saunders:
The old Code of Canon Law (1917) prohibited cremation and required the bodies of the faithful to be buried. Again, an exception was given in times of mass death and the threat of disease. Those individuals who had directed their bodies to be cremated were denied ecclesiastical burial. In 1963, the Church clarified this regulation, prohibiting cremation for anyone who wanted it simply as some testimony against the faith. The new Code of Canon Law (1983) stipulates, “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (No. 1176, 3). Therefore, a person may choose to be cremated if he has the right intention. However, the cremated remains must be treated with respect and should be interred in a grave or columbarium. A pastoral problem occurs concerning the funeral Mass itself. The cremated remains can not be present during the vigil or wake service, or during the Mass, since the regular liturgical prayers and actions are designed to honor the body. The body best reminds us of that person who entered a new life at baptism, becoming a “Temple of the Lord,” and has now gone, we hope and pray, to the fulfillment of that life and eternal rest. On the other hand, ashes remind us of the corruptibility of the deceased. As a priest, I believe that the entire Catholic funeral liturgy—the vigil service, the Mass of Christian Burial and the Final Committal and Burial—offers to us a great reminder of our faith and aids in our healing. The death of someone we love is always hard to face; however, there is something good and comforting when we gather as a faith community in the presence of our Lord and the body of the deceased, and offer that loved one back to God. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion I have dealt with families who have had the deceased loved one cremated, and later regretted the action, even feeling great guilt. I always recommend for people who want to be cremated or want to have their deceased loved one cremated that they do so after the funeral Mass and then inter the remains properly.
N.B. After this article was written (1995), an Appendix (“On Cremation, no. 412) was added (1997) to the Order of Christian Funerals, permitting the presence of cremated remains for the full course of funeral rites.
The Archdiocese of Washington, meantime, adds some helpful (and important) details:
Cremation of the body quickly reduces the body to about four to ten pounds of bone fragments. The Church requires that these remains of the body be placed in a respectful vessel and treated in the exact same way that a family would treat a body in a casket. Since the human body has an eternal destiny in any form, the Church requires that cremated remains of a body be buried or entombed immediately after the Funeral in the same timely manner as a body. Cremated remains of a loved one are not to be scattered, kept at home or divided into other vessels among family members, just as it is clear that these practices would desecrate a body in a casket. The Church allows for burial at sea, providing that the cremated remains of the body are buried in a heavy container and not scattered. All of these teachings on the treatment of cremated remains of the body correspond with the Christian’s foundational belief in eternal life—both body and soul—in Jesus Christ among the Communion of Saints. …The sacred Catholic Funeral Rites are communally prayed in three parts: the Vigil Rite; the Funeral Liturgy; and, the Rite of Committal. While the rites all assume the presence of the full body, some adaptations in the traditional texts can now be made if the body has already been cremated. The rituals are meant to take place in sequence to console the family and provide prayerful sustenance to the soul of the deceased. “Ritual action is especially important at times of greatest mystery, for events that we find difficult to apprehend because they are too beautiful or too sorrowful” (OCF, Reflections, p. 12). After the Funeral, the cremated remains of the body should be reverently buried or entombed in a cemetery or mausoleum (OCF, Reflections, p. 15).