The Catholic Church’s practice of burial goes back to early Christian days. A strong belief in the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit, as well as the belief in the resurrection of the body, supports the Church’s continued reverence for the human body. From early Christian days cremation was viewed as a pagan practice and a denial of the doctrine of the Resurrection. That is why cremation was expressly forbidden by the Catholic Church until recent years.
In 1963, the Church lifted the ban on cremation. In the revised funeral rites of 1969, a further step was taken to allow for the Rite of Committal to take place at the crematorium or grave site. The presumption was that the funeral Mass would be celebrated in the presence of the body with cremation held off until later.
We read in the January 2012 Newsletter of the Committee on Divine Worship, USCCB, that in 1997, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (at the Vatican) granted an indult for the United States to allow the diocesan bishop to permit the presence of the cremated remains of a body at a Funeral Mass. “Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites.”
Ideally, if a family chooses cremation, the cremation would take place at some time after the Funeral Mass, so that there can be an opportunity for the Vigil for the Deceased in the presence of the body (during “visitation” or “viewing” at a church or funeral home). This allows for the appropriate reverence for the sacredness of the body at the Funeral Mass: sprinkling with holy water, the placing of the pall, and honoring it with incense. The Rite of Committal then takes place after cremation.
When cremation takes place before the Funeral Mass, and the diocesan bishop permits the presence of cremated remains at the Funeral Mass, the funeral rites are adapted. The cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, and the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition.
The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains on the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires.
The Church’s decision to allow cremation recognizes the fact that sometimes it best meets the needs of the family. On the other hand, the Church continues to discourage immediate cremation. Grieving in the presence of the body over several days can help the faithful deal with their loss.
The Church continues to prefer and encourage the faithful to bury the bodies of their departed loved ones. However, if cremation is chosen for worthy motives, the Church wishes to support the faithful in honoring the life and memory of the departed.