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. All of this is pastorally understandable. 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 chosen are economic, due to the increasingly high cost of traditional burial and the difficulty, especially in urban areas, of finding room for large cemeteries. The basic norms from the church regarding cremation are these:
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. 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).
From a pastoral point of view, these norms are clear and understandable. However, as a pastor, I must say that I have growing concerns over practices that are appearing with the more widespread use of cremation.
The norms clearly indicate that cremated remains are not to be scattered, divided, or retained in the homes of the faithful on fireplace mantles, on shelves, or in other places. But these norms are somewhat difficult to enforce.
The problem emerges essentially from the detachment of the funeral Mass from interment. When cremation is chosen, it is common for the funeral Mass to be celebrated quickly but the burial to be scheduled at some “later date” when arrangements can be more conveniently made. Frequently clergy are told that the family will “call back” at some point in the future. But often these calls never come and burials are put off indefinitely.
Issues such as money, logistics, and family disputes are often factors in the delay. Priests, too, are often busy and do not have time to follow up to see if “Uncle Joe” is ready for burial now. As such, many deceased remain unburied for weeks, months, or years, or perhaps never even buried at all.
I was shocked a couple of years ago to discover that a certain Catholic family still had the cremated remains of an uncle on the top shelf of their closet. The delay centered around who in the family was going to pay for the burial lot and debates about whether burial was even necessary at all. Perhaps the ashes could just be scattered out in the woods.
Without the urgency to bury the dead, the burial is often given little regard.
Another concern came to my attention during recent funeral preparations. There was a tense debate going on among the assembled family members as to who would get to keep the ashes and who would not. The crematorium had offered to dispense ashes to different family members in sealed boxes or urns (for a price of course) and the debate seemed to center on whether certain family members were “qualified” to get some of “Mom” or not. Yikes! And when I instructed them that no division of the remains should take place at all, but rather that burial had to be arranged, I was greeted with puzzled stares and eventual “assurances” that such burial would be arranged “in due time,” once the family could work out their differences.
But things have gotten even worse.
Many funeral homes are now offering “jewelry” made from the cremated remains of loved ones or with the remains sealed within the jewelry. If you don’t believe me, click HERE, HERE, or HERE. The ghoulishness and bad taste are surpassed only by the shock of how suddenly such bizarre practices have been introduced. One can imagine the following awful dialogue: “Hey, that’s pretty new jewelry! Was that your Mom’s?” “Well, actually it is Mom!” Double yikes!
Cremation is certainly here to stay. And I do not doubt there are sound pastoral reasons for its use. However, the norms of the Church insist that cremated remains be treated with the same respect as the body. And just as we would not scatter body parts in the woods, or divide up limbs and torsos to distribute to family members, or put fingers into resin and wear them as earrings, neither should we do this with cremated remains. These ARE the remains of a human being and they are to be buried or placed in a mausoleum with the same respect due the uncremated body.
I think pastors are going to have to teach more explicitly on this matter and that bishops may need to issues norms that will help to prevent problems. One helpful norm might be to refuse to celebrate a funeral Mass until proper burial is scheduled. I am unclear if a pastor alone can do this, but surely a diocese must also have an increasingly firm and clear policy of which people are widely informed.
Simply permitting cremation without well-thought-out policies has proven to be a mistake. I pray that a post like this may provoke thought from all of us in the Church as to how to deal pastorally with a situation that is degrading quickly. We must do some teaching, but we also must not cooperate with bad practices.
The website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has proposed a possible solution for Catholic cemeteries to offer to families who are financially unable to bury the cremated remains of loved ones:
For some families, the choice of cremation is based on financial hardship, so this choice often means also that there is no plan 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, one diocese offered on All Souls’ Day in 2011 an opportunity for any family who desired it the interment of cremated remains. The diocese offered a Mass and committal service at one of its Catholic cemeteries and provided, free of charge, a common vault in a mausoleum for the interment of the cremated remains. The names of the deceased interred there were kept on file, though in this case they were not individually inscribed on the vault. 
I am interested in your thoughts and experiences and hope to share them with my bishop and my fellow clergy