What the Church Teaches on Cremation
“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” (Code of Canon Law, 1176.3)
From the Order of Christian Funerals, Appendix II, Cremation
This is the Church’s official liturgical book and highest authoritative teaching on cremation. Promulgated in 1997.
The Christian faithful are unequivocally confronted by the mystery of life and death when they are faced with the presence of the body of one who has died. Moreover, the body which lies in death naturally recalls the personal story of faith, the loving family bonds, the friendships, and the words and acts of kindness of the deceased person. Indeed, the human body is inextricably associated with the human person, which acts and is experienced by others through that body. It is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing. (411)
The body of a deceased Catholic Christian is also the body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the Bread of Life. Thus, the Church's reverence for the sacredness of the human body grows out of a reverence and concern both natural and supernatural for the human person. The body of the deceased brings forcefully to mind the Church's conviction that the human body is in Christ a temple of the Holy Spirit and is destined for future glory at the resurrection of the dead. This conviction in faith finds its expression in a sustained and insistent prayer that commends the deceased person to God's merciful care so that his or her place in the communion of the just may be assured. A further expression is the care traditionally taken to prepare the bodies of the deceased for a burial that befits their dignity, in expectation of their final resurrection in the Lord. (412)
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. (413)
The Church's teaching in regard to the human body as well as the Church's preference for burial of the body should be a regular part of catechesis on all levels and pastors should make particular efforts to preserve this important teaching. (414)
Sometimes, however, it is not possible for the body to be present for the Funeral Mass. When extraordinary circumstances make the cremation of a body the only feasible choice, pastoral sensitivity must be exercised by priests, deacons, and others who minister to the family of the deceased. (415)
Piam et Constantem
The Instruction of Pope Paul VI which first permitted cremation, 1964
All necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently burying the faithful departed. Accordingly, through proper instruction and persuasion Ordinaries [i.e. Bishops] are to ensure that the faithful refrain from cremationand not discontinue the practice of burial except when forced to do so by necessity. For the Church has always maintained the practice of burial and consecrated it through liturgical rites. (1)
The devout attitude of the faithful toward the ecclesiastical tradition must be kept from being harmed and the Church's adverse attitude toward cremation must be clearly evident. (4)
Ad resurgendum cum Christo
Instruction of Pope Francis, 2016
Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places. … By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity. (3)
The Church continues to prefer the practice of burying the bodies of the deceased, because this shows a greater esteem towards the deceased. Nevertheless, cremation is not prohibited, “unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine” (4)
When, for legitimate motives, cremation of the body has been chosen, the ashes of the faithful must be laid to rest in a sacred place (5) … When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith, a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law. (8)
Commentary from Father Ryan Erlenbush
It is clear that the Church discourages the practice of cremation. It is of less value and should only be chosen in extraordinary circumstances and when cremation is the only feasible option. The Church’s “adverse attitude” (i.e. opposition) toward cremation is to be clearly evident in catechesis given by priests and bishops – the fact that this has not been communicated in the years since Vatican II is a great failure on the part of the pastors of the Church.
While cremation is permitted for extreme cases, the Church prefers full body burial and admonishes the faithful to take every measure reasonably possible to ensure full body burial rather than cremation. Why then does the Church allow cremation, if she is so strongly opposed to it? There are exceptional circumstances which, judged individually, may necessitate cremation as the only feasible option -- such as: time of war or plague; when a person dies in another country or state far from the place of burial; when burial cannot occur for an extended period of time; the case of miscarriage will sometimes be accompanied with cremation as part of hospital procedure; countries or places where there are no cemeteries or no open plots at a reasonable price; etc. In such extreme cases, cremation may be the only feasible option.
Many are under the impression that full body burial is expensive in the USA. This is not necessarily the case. Two of the biggest expenses associated with full body burial are embalming and the casket. It is entirely permissible to purchase (or even build) a simple pine box casket at a fraction of the cost of many modern caskets. Furthermore, the embalming process is almost never required by law – nor is this process encouraged by the Church (neither is it condemned). In embalming, a large portion of the interior of the body is destroyed, and much of the blood is drained – many people do not feel this shows the respect that is due the human body either. It is entirely possible to preserve the body intact and entire through the process of refrigeration (which is very inexpensive), and even still to avoid rushing the funeral date. Indeed, there is no legal or theological reason why embalming would be necessary before a viewing of the body (although some funeral homes require this for a public viewing, it is not required by law) and the Funeral Mass. It would be worth the time to educate yourself regarding what options are available for your funeral and burial – I recommend looking up “Home Funeral Advocacy” online as a great starting place to see other approaches to burial, and to give a firmer understanding of your options when you approach a funeral home. For more information on embalming, see: http://fcasocal.org/embalming-facts.html
Do not allow expensive funeral home add-ons (like embalming or fancy caskets) or societal pressure force you to choose something which the Church has forbidden for millennia and still strongly discourages – whenever there is another reasonable option, Catholics do not cremate their beloved dead.