Catholic Teaching on Cremated Remains

Right before the “Month of Remembering the Dead” (November), The Vatican issued a new document called “To Rise With Christ.” It reminds Catholics that when one cremates the body of the deceased, one should not keep the cremated remains at home or divide the cremated remains among family and friends nor scatter the remains. Obviously, the Church would not speak about such things unless they are happening more and more.

There was a time when the Church opposed cremation because it was often practiced by atheists to deny the resurrection of the body. This reason would be rare today and since the Second Vatican Council (in 1963), the Church permits cremation with funeral services while still preferring to have the body at the funeral Wake and Mass, though cremated remains are permitted. Then the remains should be buried, like a body (which it is, but as “dust”) in a grave or placed in a columbarium. The final resting place of a Christian should be sacred and so blessed.

Some may be surprised that the Church puts such emphasis on the body (and by extension, the cremated body). Some confused Christians have wrongly seen the body as the enemy of the soul. This is definitively contradicted by the Son of God being born in a human body. We not only reverence his Body but also the human body of every person. As Archbishop John Joseph Meyers, Bishop of Newark, wrote: “For a Christian, the body’s significance is good, inescapable, and central; Christianity itself cannot be understood apart from an appreciation of the body.”

St. Paul wrote: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

The Church has now recently reminded us that just as the body of the deceased is handled with respect and reverenced in the funeral and lovingly buried afterward, so the cremated remains of the deceased should receive a similar respect. We would not keep a dead body in our home or cut it into pieces and scatter it about. Neither should we keep the cremated ashes at home or scatter them.

The new document also says that we bury bodies and so should also bury cremated remains (which are actually a body turned to dust) in imitation of Christ himself who died and was buried in a tomb.

But perhaps what might most make sense to us is the need to have a place which is a final resting place for the body (or its remains) where the person’s name is remembered and the time they lived and which can be visited by not only family, but by friends and future generations.

I was somewhat surprised as I was researching the web about cremation practices, that one site explaining how to scatter the cremated remains, in fairness gave a note of caution. It said one might consider the value of burial or internment for these reasons:

“The emotional value of establishing a permanent place to visit is worthy of consideration. Memorialisation is a tribute to the deceased, and also a service to the living. The gesture of visiting a site and seeing the deceased’s name can provide comfort. Memorialisation is not just for family and friends, but for everyone whose lives were touched by the deceased. It is also for the generations that follow who will want to connect with their heritage. Without memorialisation, all traces of the deceased are lost forever.”