Considering Cremation? A Reflection on the Reverent Interment of Cremated Human Remains

Funeral wood urn complete view isolated on pure white background

I have written off and on about some of the problems that are setting up around cremation. Of course there has been very little explicit teaching or information available to Catholics to help them to frame their thinking. To assist modestly in that refelction I wrote the following flyer for my own parish. What follows is the text of that flyer. In case you are interested, I provide it in PDF format here: Considering Cremation?

Some years ago, the Church gave wider permission for cremation and also lifted traditional restrictions on having cremated remains present in the church for funeral Masses.

A pastoral provision – Extending this permission is pastorally understandable, though traditional burial (interment) of the body is still preferred. Very few if any people these days choose cremation for the reasons it had traditionally been forbidden, namely as a denial of the resurrection of the body. Generally, the reasons cremation is chosen today are economic ones, due to the increasingly high cost of traditional burial. However, the cost savings are not as significant as they once were.

Certain recent trends that are problematic – Although the Church recognizes cremation as a fitting and understandable option for Christian Burial, certain recent trends related to cremation are inappropriate and should not be considered fitting. Among these trends is the failure to secure proper interment for the cremated remains by placing them on mantles or in closets, scattering them, dividing them among relatives, or even making jewelry and other keepsakes using them.

Therefore, please consider some of the basic norms from the Church regarding cremation:

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 (Code of Canon Law No. 1176, 3).

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 (Order of Christian Funerals no. 413).

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 (Ibid).

The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires (cf Order of Christian Funerals # 417).

Perhaps the quickest way to summarize these norms is to say that we should treat the cremated remains of a loved one in the same way we would treat his or her body. For, in fact, this is what remains of the body. And just as we would not think to scatter body parts about, or to have one relative take an arm home and another a leg, neither should we do this with the cremated remains. And surely we would not consider melting part of the body down into jewelry or retaining part of it (other than perhaps a lock of hair) as a keepsake. Neither would we fail to bury the body at all.

Basic requirements for reverent interment – The key point is to treat the cremated remains just as we would treat the full body. Reverent handling and proper disposition are essential.

Proper interment of the remains should be sought, meaning either in cemetery grounds or a mausoleum. Most cemeteries these days have special mausoleums (sometimes called columbariums) with small covered and secured niches where the cremated remains can rest. Proper interment should not be delayed. Ideally it should take place the day of the funeral, and if not that day then very shortly thereafter.

Cremated remains should not be scattered or strewn on open ground, in gardens, in forests, or any other place. Neither should they be scattered into the air from a plane or into the sea. The cremated remains should remain intact, in a properly-sealed container, and interred as a single unit.

What about financial hardship? For some families, the choice of cremation is based on financial hardship. This choice often also means that there is no plan or ability for committal or burial of the cremated remains. As a means of providing pastoral support and an acceptable respectful solution to the problem of uninterred cremated remains, Catholic cemeteries offer to inter these remains properly at little or no cost. Some of these offer a common vault in a mausoleum for the interment of cremated remains. The names of the deceased interred there are kept on file, though not usually inscribed on the vault. Other cemeteries maintain an area for the burial of both cremated remains and the bodies of those who cannot afford a gravesite with a personal marker. So the lack of money should not hinder the proper interment of cremated remains.

Conclusion – Cremation, though less ideal than the burial of the body, is permitted by the Church as a pastoral provision and is a needed solution today for increasing numbers of people. However, we ought to be aware of the need to handle cremated remains with the same reverence we have for the full human body. The cremated remains of a human person are not “ashes.” They are human remains and should be regarded as such. One of the last gifts we can give our loved ones is the proper and reverent interment of what remains of the body. This, along with our prayers for their souls, remains a duty and a work of mercy. It should be handled with devotion and all proper reverence.

19 Replies to “Considering Cremation? A Reflection on the Reverent Interment of Cremated Human Remains”

  1. I always found it difficult to follow the Church’s reasoning about cremation considering a) the body is dead and b) we believe in the resurrection. What does it matter if we scatter the body, the soul is gone and it is done out of love. How is something done out of love to shell that was once a person, a dead body, wrong? Does the body have rights after the soul has left? If the family is okay with it, and the dead person was okay with the idea, and God will resurrect them, why is the Church so upset about it?

    A more strong argument however, is if we cut up parts of saints bodies and distribute them, placing them in altars, homes, etc as relics, how can we say you shouldn’t do it to a loved one? Not that I would want to, but for the sake of argument. For Pete’s sake, even Peter’s bones are on display in the St. Peter’s. If we can have things like the Church of the Bones in Rome, which is very creepy, we shouldn’t be that worried about cremation. I love the Church and abide by what she says, it is just think that for this teaching a better explanation is needed because Church practice on bodies of saints and religious directly contradict its teaching…or so it seems to someone like me.

    1. Matt,

      There significant differences in the way the world perceives a dead body and the way Catholics understand the significance of that body. As St. Paul tells us in 1Corinthians 6:19-20, “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.” Once dead, the body may be a “shell,” but it is the shell that housed the Creator and Holy Spirit – a holy temple – that deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Spreading one’s ashes, no matter what the motive, or understanding of the deceased and the family, is akin (to me, at least) to burning trash and then spreading it so that it can somehow be used as compost by “mother earth.” I also don’t like the idea of the ashes being trampled on by man, animals or machines, or absorbed into fish and plant life. This just not seem to be the respect that should be shown to the body that once housed God.

      The practice of having relics of saints is quite different from what you describe. It’s not like we’re cutting up whole pieces of the body and sending an arm one place and a leg to another. The (small pieces of) relics are cared for, placed either in altars or reliquaries, and venerated as holy. I don’t think wearing Grandma’s ashes around my neck, or putting Dad on the mantle is quite the same thing. Even the bones of St. Peter in Rome are housed in a glass-like coffin that is intended for veneration, not out in the open for everyone to handle.

      Please keep in mind that these are my thoughts and I’m not intending to judge anyone with them. I understand other good people may disagree with me, but after prayerful consideration, I have chosen not to be cremated for many of the reasons that Father also outlines.

    2. I believe thinking the body is a “shell” for the soul (you said, “How is something done out of love to shell that was once a person…”) is your problem. It is an error to think the body is just a outside house for the all important soul. I will refer you to this article that in part says, One very common heresy is the belief that our soul is somehow “trapped” inside our body. ”
      I am no theologian and cannot expound on this topic, but I do know our body is intimately untied to our soul in life, and so deserves profound respect at death. Scattering ashes as if the body were simply a vessel that is of no consequence anymore is disregarding it’s beautiful role in the journey of our life from our birth going back to God.
      I also think Msgr. Pope has discussed the topic about relics before here, and you might read some of the things he’s said regarding that. Regarding that, in my opinion, relics are a different case, since they are revered as holy and sacred objects of the body of the saint, and in no way are desecrated or thought inconsequential. Just the opposite.

  2. The church may want to review it’s requirements for approved cremation. The latest advancements in cremation include liquid cremation where the corpse is disolve in a high alkiline solution. Ecologically consider more environmentally safe, you are not producing a carbon footprint in the ozone layer. Since the body is mostly water and the solution contains no lasting polluting chemicals it’s as easy as washing your dirty laundry. The leftover solution is easily diluted to safe septic tank or sewer friendly concentrations. The remaining bones are pressed into a convenient powder and placed in a convenient small container for the surving family. This gives new meaning to a needed “solution” today for increasing numbers of people.

    1. How disgusting and offensive.

      And producing, storing, transporting and using in chemical reactions massive quantities of strong alkali (enough to completely dissolve 100kg+ of human body including even bones and teeth, multiplied by teh number of uses) could not possibly be friendly to the natural environment.

      No, let us bury bodies in the natural way where the bacteria, fungi and worms in the soil will consume them with zero damage to the environment.

  3. About a year ago, I arrived early at our parish to prepare for a baptism and had to wait several minutes for a funeral Mass (with cremated remains) to end. After the grieving family and friends left and I started to prepare for the baptism, the baby’s father came to me with a serious expression and carrying a medium-sized wooden box he had found on top of a bench in the church’s vestibule. Yup, they forgot about grandpa.

    When our father died in California two years ago, we had him cremated after the funeral Mass so that we could transport his remains to be buried next to Mom in Puerto Rico.

  4. I intend to buried in Viet Nam. I would like it to be in the grounds of a convent with which I have been associated for some years. My daughter will carry the ashes to the parish where I stay when I am there. They will have to be in a plastic container until they get to Hoa Yen Parish and then they will go into an urn. My priest in the US has been ambiguous about it and I am concerned. I do worry about TSA in the airport. There have been some stories about TSA throwing such ashes on the floor or confiscating them as suspicious material.

  5. Msgr.,

    Thanks for posting this! As for certain comments regarding “ecologically appropriate burial” and “reducing carbon footprints”, I am doing a “double face palm”. There is a phenomenon called human decomposition and it is as God intended it (“and unto dust you shall return”). Even His Son was placed in a tomb although, Praise God, He gloriously rose from the dead as will we on the final day when called to account for our entire life…. I will be buried the same as my forefathers have been…in a coffin in a cemetery without cremation.


  6. If you are worried about “carbon footprint” remember that matter cannot be created of destroyed (short of nuclear events) and so your “carbon footprint” is no bigger or smaller after cremation. Same # of carbon atoms before or after.

    The primary premise of global warming is that increasing CO2 levels will cause increasing temperature. While the CO2 level has almost doubled in the last 18 years the temperature has not risen at all. See a real scientific climate site like “Watt’s up with that” Google it. Global warming is a giant liberal hoax to remove your God given rights, which the Catholic Church (shame, shame, shame) is buying into (Jesuits liberation theology = communism).

    1. As I understand it, the Orthodox Church is also falling for the global warming hoax. Truly sad. What audacity for a Pope and a Patriarch to think humans control the climate when it seems clear from Scripture that God is the Creator, Engineer, and Conductor of the universe.

  7. Monsignor, would you care to provide some substantiation for your assertion that the cost savings for cremation are not as significant as they once were (or even how you define the term significant”)? On the west coast a cremation can be done for $250. This omits burial but since my loved one’s burial will be provided by the government, I haven’t needed that latter information.

  8. Act 8:2 “Stephen was buried by devout men, who mourned greatly over him.”

  9. To my knowledge, 2 Catholic Churches in my diocese have a sort of dry well used for interring cremated remains. I have been told that the urns are emptied into the dry well. This is very troubling to me. Surely, this cannot be right.

  10. I have long considered, and am strongly inclined toward, cremation. Not for any financial considerations, or to make a theological point, and I think it absolutely gauche to scatter or strew the remains, put them on a mantel, or in a locket, or whatever. No, none of that. For me, the attraction is that cremated remains, properly interred, may be moved. My parents rest in the red clay of Georgia. I live in Ohio, do not have relatives in Georgia, and do not often have sufficient cause to make the twelve-hour drive. I would like to be able to visit and pray at my parents’ grave. I would like to take my children there. Disinterment is not a practical option. It would be relatively easy to remove cremated remains from one mausoleum to another. Looking forward, it is not at all improbable I will rest in Ohio while my children live who knows where. I think there is much to be said for families being able to gather at the tomb of their ancestors to pray and remember in an age as mobile as ours. There are points to be made on both sides of the debate. But for me, for the reasons set forth above, the scales tip toward cremation.

    1. Maybe the problem isn’t with gravesites being non-portable, but with people being so willing to move far away from their family of origin. Why do we so easily take for granted that “this age is mobile”? Moving far away from one’s birthplace is a choice, not an inevitability. Stability is a value that we as a society need to take a closer look at and we need to be willing to make sacrifices in order to preserve. So what if there is a better paying job somewhere else, the weather is nicer somewhere else, the city more glamorous somewhere else. Are those things really worth it? Are they really worth the fragmentation of family connections plagues society today? People grow up barely knowing their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins because they only see them a couple times a year. Is that really God’s intent for family relationships?

  11. Early Christians never cremated and until our more unGodly times all Christian burials had the orientation head to the west and their feet to the east, this means they’ll sit up facing east. Clergy with their heads to the East?How can cremation be reverent after incineration and mechanical grinding up of bone. What ever happens to metal hips, bone pins and pace makers? The act of deliberate cremation is an act of disrespect. The action in itself is a sacrilege because it takes no account of the resurrection.

  12. Does anyone know under what circumstances that cremation was permitted by the Church? Just curious

  13. Thank you, Charles, for conveying an honest message in a polite manner. it is true, that recent trends have gotten a bit out of hand, and we should honor the original intention of the sacred ritual of burial/cremation. It sound slike you have a few ridiculous stories you could tell us all!

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