Thursday, 20 August 2015

Catholic Dilemma 288: Cremation, Catholics and the Resurrection

I am now well into my nineties and have been considering my death for some years. I see that the Church now allows cremation, but since we believe in the resurrection of the body, what worries me is that afterwards, there is no body, only ashes.

The 19th century cremation movement, promoted initially by Italian freemasons involved an explicit denial of the resurrection of the body as well as (largely spurious) hygienic and public health concerns. In response, the Church insisted on the ancient custom of burial until 1966, by which time cremation had become more common and was less likely to be promoted for reasons contrary to the faith. The Code of Canon Law puts the present law simply: “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.” (Canon 1176.3)

In ancient Rome, the bodies of Christians were often recovered at great risk for a dignified burial. Some pagans thought that by burning the bodies, they would make their resurrection impossible. The early Christian writer Minucius Felix replied that Christians did not fear loss or harm from cremation “even though we adopt the ancient and better custom of burial.”

In encouraging Christian burial, the Church draws attention to the body which is washed in baptism, anointed at confirmation, and fed with the Holy Eucharist. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and is treated with respect after death. The traditional custom of burial also acts as a symbol of the person sleeping in Christ until the resurrection. Likewise the ashes should be treated with respect after cremation at all times, and reverently buried, not scattered.

May I gently urge you to make a Will which includes your desire for a Requiem Mass (as well as the disposal of your mortal remains and any material assets.) This will be an act of kindness and will greatly help your surviving relatives when God calls you to Himself. And God bless you for giving us an example of lifelong active and enquiring faith.

Catholic Dilemmas column published in the Catholic Herald
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