By Heather Sanford
People have a lot of questions about whether the Catholic Church allows cremation, so I decided to do some research. Here is what I learned:
In the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law, “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (Canon 1176).
The 1989 revised funeral rites, called the Order of Christian Funerals, prescribes three separate rites that should ideally be performed in the following order:
- The vigil for the deceased is a short prayer service held after the death and
before the funeral liturgy. It usually takes place at the funeral home.
- The principal celebration of life is the funeral liturgy — typically a Mass.
- The rite of committal is a short prayer service at the cemetery, ideally beside the
open grave or place of interment.
The newest cremation regulation, dated March 21, 1997, permits U.S. Latin-rite bishops to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to allow a person’s cremated remains at Catholic Funeral Masses in their dioceses. It states that when cremation is chosen, “it is greatly preferred that the funeral liturgy take place in the presence of the body of the deceased prior to its cremation.” Some families choose to perform the cremation after the Funeral Mass in order to satisfy this regulation.
It only gets complicated when the cremation is done before the funeral. When cremation has already occurred, a bishop can grant permission for a properly sequenced ritual. For bishops who choose not to allow funeral Masses in the presence of cremated remains, switching the order of the rites is one solution.
For example, a vigil rite could be celebrated at the deathbed using the final commendation (a prayer of farewell) over the body. This is the final commendation that is usually at the end of the funeral Mass, asking the Lord to accept the deceased into paradise. Then, after the body is cremated, the rite of committal (burying or entombing the cremated remains) would be used at the site. Following the committal, all would come to church for the memorial—or funeral liturgy—without the body present.
The fact that this reordering of the funeral rites is not ideal, is one reason why bishops may allow cremated remains at the Funeral Mass. It is best to check with your parish in advance.
The bottom line: The Catholic Church allows cremation as long as it is not chosen for reasons that are contrary to Christian teaching. Additionally, cremation alone is not considered by the Church to be reverent disposition of the body; the cremated remains need to be either buried or placed in a permanent niche in a columbarium. Our funeral directors are happy to help you learn about the regulations of your particular parish so that you can feel comfortable with your choice of cremation.