Cremation: Recalling Some Basic Catholic Truths

The Church rescinded its prohibition on cremation, but does not consider burial and cremation equally valid methods.

The Newark Star-Ledger reports that acceptance of cremation is growing: 40% of deaths in America (and 40% in New Jersey) result in cremation.  In some Western states, the rate reaches 70%.1

Most writers note that the Church rescinded its prohibition on cremation in 1963, and Catholic acceptance of cremation is fast mirroring the general population.  In light of the seemingly growing Catholic acceptance of cremation, it is appropriate for priests to bring some points to the attention of the faithful.  While November, with its focus on prayer for the dead, seems especially appropriate, the pastoral need to address this phenomenon is year-round.

The Church encourages burial and discourages cremation

The first point that merits emphasis is simply that the Church does not consider earth burial and cremation equally valid methods of dealing with the body of a deceased Christian.  The Church considers burial to be its norm; cremation is an exception.2

For a long time, those who chose cremation did so for ideological reasons: they were often materialists, intent on rejecting the Christian notion of the dignity of the body and its doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.  Belief in such principles was obviously incompatible with Catholic faith.  When the Holy Office lifted its prohibition on cremation in 1963, it did so because it judged that now other reasons (e.g., limited land) motivated people seeking cremation, reasons that had nothing to do with explicitly rejecting basic elements of Christian anthropology and eschatology.

At the same time, the Church did not say that cremation was now the functional equivalent of burial in terms of dealing with Christian remains.  One suspects that the selective way in which the changed teaching on cremation was received was a little like the change in mandatory Friday abstinence which took place at roughly the same time.  The American bishops, in removing the mandatory nature of abstinence on non-Lenten Fridays, affirmed the need for penitential practices and urged Catholics to retain abstinence if they did not substitute some other act of mortification or additional act of charity. But the general Catholic population heard something else: “you can eat meat on Friday.”  A key piece of the discipline was lost. In the case of abstinence, the Church sought to emphasize the special nature of Friday by widening the range of ways in which Catholics should have honored that day, and wound up with its banalization.  In the case of cremation, one suspects that Catholics have heard that “cremation is OK,” and not that the Church still prefers burial in the ground.

Why?  The Church, of course, draws from the example of Jesus, who Himself was laid in a tomb.  Let me suggest, however, that the Church’s preference for burial is not merely imitative of Christ, but also indicative of something else.  For if, as Bl. John Paul II taught (himself quoting Vatican II), “Christ fully reveals man to himself,”3 then earth burial is not just the imitation of Christ, but also indicative of something about man himself.  What does it indicate?  That man is not just a soul encased by a body; that the human person is a body-soul unity; and that the human body, therefore, enjoys the dignity of the person.

Why is burial falling out of favor?  Part of the reason may be economic: cremation—especially direct cremation, without wake, service, or burial—is cheaper than burial.  In this regard, however, pastors need to remind Catholics of a few key points:  (1) Funerals need not be expensive: there is no need for the late model casket, and most states do not require embalming.  Perhaps, there is more that parish communities can do to alleviate costs, e.g., sharing in preparing a post-burial meal.  (2) Cremation becomes significantly cheaper only when one omits a wake, service, and burial.  But Catholic discipline (and a Catholic sense of the faithful) should militate against omission of the funeral liturgy, whose symbolism itself (e.g., the reception of the body, its incensation, etc.) becomes truncated when the body is not present.  Catholic discipline expects that the body should not be cremated until after the funeral liturgy.  On a human level, it is inhuman—even considering omission of the funeral liturgy or preceding wake.  If the funeral liturgy and wake are as much about the living as the dead, then mourners need support of the community, as well as the closure, that a funeral brings. All Catholics need the funeral liturgy as a memento mori: “As I was, you are; as I am, you will be.” Catholic young people especially need exposure to the funeral liturgy to acquaint them to the fact that death is a part of life.

Funerals are not just functional

Funerals “say” things.  They do not just “do” something, i.e., dispose of the remains.  When Christians gather to pray, to mourn, and to support each other over the death of a brother or sister, they mark a human life.  When they do so in the presence of the body of the deceased, they remember that the body is an integral part of the person, having shared in the person’s life and destined to share in his eternal destiny.   In a world strongly dominated by a Cartesian view of the body—i.e., man is consciousness, the “ego” who thinks, with a sub-personal body attached—the Catholic funeral liturgy reminds people of another, truer anthropology.

It would, indeed, reflect a dehumanization of the person if the purpose of a funeral is reduced to the problem of what to do with the body.  The dead human body is also a sign of incarnation; this was once a human person.  When we begin to celebrate “lives” and “people” without a body present, we run a high risk of furthering a disincarnated, Cartesian view of the person, a way of looking at people that will obviously be problematic in other areas of Christian living (e.g., Christian sexual and marital morality).

This reification of the person becomes even stronger when one considers the various messages cremation implies.  A body reminds one of a person; ashes are far more likely to be regarded as a thing.  We bury treasure; we incinerate trash.  Regardless of what notions we may put into our heads, the primordial symbolism is not so readily changed.

The problem grows when one considers some practices of the larger culture.  Ashes are often kept in homes, or elsewhere, rather than buried.  A graveyard should convey a sense of sacred finality; the same message is not sent when Uncle Joe is among the knickknacks in the bookcase.  Treating ashes as a thing, depersonalizes the deceased; there is a need for a “resting place.”  It also conveys the idea that the other “belongs” to the family, rather than to God, who is the ultimate rest of the departed.

Obviously, this entire tendency reaches its nadir in the contemporary “service” offered by some crematoria, where the ashes of the deceased are fused into a crystal.  The body, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, cannot be reduced to a pendant.

Scattering Ashes

The larger culture has also embraced the “romantic” image of scattering the ashes of the deceased—on a favorite beach, in the Grand Canyon, in the sea.  Plenty of movie moments have been made with such images.

Catholic teaching on the dignity of the body, obviously, rejects such practice.  It does so precisely because that dignity presupposes corporeal integrity, even in death: the body is not just something to be harvested or destroyed.

Current environmental consciousness perhaps fuels this movement: we want to express our oneness with nature.  Again, this practice sows the seeds for propagation of an alien anthropology in Catholic consciousness.  Man is part of nature, but not just part of nature.  The vision of man found in Genesis presents man as steward, as God’s vice-regent of creation: man is not just $4.50 worth of various chemicals, with a couple gallons of water.  A “green” movement that obscures man’s distinctiveness from the rest of the world, in the end, does violence to human dignity.

Whose Body Is It Anyway?

In the end, the likely response, in an American context, to intellectual arguments against cremation, will be: “Whose body is it anyway?  Is it not my right to die and deal with my body as I want?  It’s my body.”

This exaggerated sense of personal autonomy, of course, stands behind the leading source of the culture of death in our country: legalized abortion.  The “right to control one’s body” was the original justification for the ersatz “right to privacy” that underlay Roe v Wade.

Having said that, this argument requires a challenge.  The idea of untrammeled personal autonomy is not ultimately compatible with a Christian outlook.  In response to “whose body is it anyway,” St. Paul’s answer is clear: it is God’s.  “You have been bought, and at a great price.  So glorify God in your body” (I Cor. 6:20).  What St. Paul states, the rest of the New Testament affirms: the Christian belongs to God; he is not his own.  The baptismal liturgy affirms this, when the priest “claims” the candidate for Christ. This is why the connection between baptism and the funeral liturgy is so important: “On the day of his baptism, (name of deceased) put on Christ.”  That symbolism is vitiated when the body is destroyed by cremation.

The Anthropological Question

One of the great contributions of Bl. John Paul II to the contemporary Church, was his “theology of the body.”  His presentation about the dignity of the bodily person, starting with Adam and Eve in Genesis, challenged a number of powerful biases based in philosophy, revisionist theology, and bioethics which are popular in today’s world.  The late Pope provided the intellectual basis to defend Catholic teaching, for example, about sexual morality.

But that teaching remains under assault in a world that regards the body as a subpersonal husk of the “person,” a “vegetable” left behind after consciousness is impaired.  Such thinking, in turn, fires the contemporary “culture of death” which Bl. John Paul II so frequently scored.  Advancing the removal of the physical body through cremation, paradoxically, can fuel the kinds of false anthropologies that the John Paul II sought to resist: the idea that the body is a thing that “belongs” to me.  The dangers this poses should be further reason to discourage, strongly, the growing pro-cremation trend.

  1. Stacy Jones, “Cremation is Gaining Favor with Jerseyans,” Newark Sunday Star-Ledger, August 14, 2011, section 3, pp. 1, 3.
  2. See Canon 1176.3, Codex juris canonici.
  3. Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptor hominis, # 8, quoting the Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, # 22.
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avatar About John M. Grondelski

John M. Grondelski is an independent scholar from Perth Amboy, New Jersey. He holds a Ph.D. in moral theology from Fordham, and served as associate dean of the School of Theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He has written for Angelicum, Antonianum, Irish Theological Studies, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

Comments

  1. avatar Joan says:

    All this high philosophy is very nice and I do concur. But let me take you down to earth for a moment. We have had many deaths in my family over the past few years. Sometimes a casket was chosen, more often cremation, for one reason and one reason only: cost. You cannot buy a casket for less than several thousand dollars. We are talking JUST the casket, not the other expenses you mention, but a burial plot certainly can add a few thousand more. You’re up to $6-10k for “the basics.” Some people die without even a few thousand dollars in the bank. No one will ever choose the least expensive casket, either, because they feel that’s an insult to their loved one. It seems to me if the Church prefers burial there is some moral imperative on Catholic mortuaries to make caskets more affordable and cemeteries to make burials more affordable. Why are they never the object of these lectures?

    • I’m 76 yrs. old. I have no assets, no savings and I live on just a bit over $1000/mo…. I own a burial plot where my husband is buried (died 25 years ago.) Believe me, I would like NOTHING better than to be buried next to him (never re-married) But how can that be? Please don’t make me feel so terrible about cremation, the ONLY route I have due to $$$. I am, have always been and I will ALWAYS be a DEVOUT Catholic. I feel bad enough knowing I will not be laid to rest next to my husband but I took the piddly amount of money I had left 2 years ago and paid for a memorial service and cremation so my children would not be put in a “Bind”. They are “struggling” and I would only add to that if I had a burial service. I don’t want to be remembered as having placed them in “debt” so I made my choice after reading it was acceptable to the Church. And now…………I feel totally terrible and sad. Please keep these situations in mind in your articles…..I doubt I’ll sleep at night again wondering about this. God bless each of you!

      • avatar Anne says:

        Barbara– remember that God always knows what is in your heart. I hope that you can be at peace with your decision. It sounds like the right one to me in spite of the author’s article.

      • avatar Deacon Jim Stagg says:

        Dear Barbara,
        Do not be dismayed over what has been written. Please do not concern yourself with a burden which should not be imposed on you.

        This is a well-written article on the Church’s preferential treatment of the body, but God is God; when the final judgement arrives, He will have no difficulty in bringing yours, and my, bodies back from the dust of cremation, any more than He will for the dust of bones buried in boxes.

        Yes, you read that correctly; I am currently making two fine oak boxes for my wife’s ashes and for mine. We have already made arrangements to have our bodies taken directly to the mortuary and cremated. We already have niches purchased for a reasonable amount at our local cemetery.

        Please know, Barbara, that we are of your age, and we have fully reviewed Church teachings on this subject, and we find NO reason to reconsider. We hope to die with clean souls; that is what is important. We remember all our Ash Wednesdays as approval for our choice:
        “Remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you will return.”

        Be of good heart. You have made the right choice for you.

    • avatar Laura says:

      Thank you Joan, for infusing a bit of realism into this conversation. I found it ludicrous that the writer states that it’s the wake, service and burial (lowering the casket) that adds the difference in cost between a burial and a cremation. As you say, caskets are thousands and burial plots as well. If the Church really wants to encourage ground burial, they should provide an avenue to buy real-cost caskets to all Catholics as well as Church-subsidized burial plots for the poor. I agree with the writer’s theology, but even in Jesus’ day, the Jews did not purchase plots of ground for burial. Deceased were laid in niches in caves and left for nature to take it’s course for a year. The family returned after the allotted time and collected the bones, which were placed in a small box (an ossuary) and buried.

    • avatar JMudder says:

      I buried my MIL in 1995, in New Jersey. The cost was over $15K just to the funeral home. This was with just a one day wake, no religious funeral services (she was agnostic), and her sons + the mortuary personnel serving as pall bearers, no family car to the cemetery, or a a funeral procession, just a hearse. Supposedly it was a “cheap” funeral.
      Far better had her life and her joy in people, and in helping those around her, been celebrated by a gift to the community, not the funeral director.
      I don’t disagree with the main point, and the services and mass, and burial of my Aunt and Uncle 10 years later were spiritually supportive, and their internment cathartic. But I couldn’t help but remember that the Catholic parish, and priest visited once in the 10 years they were disabled and unable to attend Mass. That was to perform the last rites. They were not visited during their hospitalizations, or during their extended stays in rehab homes. There were no provisions, by the diocese or the parish, to allow elderly parishioners, even the respite of attending Mass once a month, while the “community” sat with the disabled spouse. For 85 years, my Uncle attended Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, he served on any parish board he was asked to, donated to any charity he was asked to, and faithfully observed and celebrated his union with Christ. His last 7 (died at 92), were spent caring for a stroke paralyzed wife, and without the support of his priest, parish, diocese, or religion.

  2. avatar Fr Levi says:

    Excellent post. I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of cremation – as you say, we cremate trash.

    Even when the ashes are interred, I think something is lost. When a body is buried after a funeral, the imemediate family are surrounded by the wider family, their circle of friends, & their church community. Days or weeks later, when the ashes are being buried, there is usually only a woefully small number present. Some of the loved ones have remarked to me that it is like having the funeral all over again … but this time without the same level of support. Pastorally, I find it a rather poor idea. The ‘closure’ gained at the funeral is lost & the wounds are reopened.

    • avatar DMW says:

      A great many religions and cultures from the past utilized cremation and KEPT the remains of their loved ones near them! Many people feel the way that I do: it makes no difference to me whether the person is returned to “the dust of the earth,” from bodily decay, or cremation. The end is both the same…..ashes and dust! Centuries ago, graves, burials, caskets, etc., were AFFORDABLE. And although I am a CATHOLIC, I HIGHLY resent the Church telling ME that cremation is “second rate” to that of burial! When the Catholic cemeteries, the Catholic burial grounds, the Catholic undertakers, can give people some “financial relief” THEN, and only then, will people begin to choose burials over cremations! When the families start to experience EXTREME financial hardships due to the costs of burying their loved ones, THAT should be the sign that the Catholic Church should take a good hard look about cremation! The common argument used by many that burials honor the dead, and that cremation does not, does NOT hold any truth to it! Burial has been used to “having the form of Godliness but not giving to God the honor that belongs to Him!” Many people bury the dead, but sadly, there is no evidence of honor or love for them! When the cost of burial of family members becomes an extreme financial hardship to the surviving members of the family, you have to ask this question: Who profits most from the “guilt trip imposed upon the survivors?” Greed is there from the time a person is born, and extends towards the death of each person! I leave this last comment as an afterthought: your departed loved one, (hopefully!) is now in the presence of Jesus, and God the Father, and could care less if he/she was buried in a $1,000.00 casket or a $25,000.00 casket, and would be MORE concerned about the welfare and financial well-being of the members of their family!

    • avatar Elizabeth says:

      Why does everyone assume cremation means not being buried in the ground? My brother was cremated, and we had a beautiful funeral, and then went to the cemetery service and buried him in the family plot. It was so nice that I decided to do the same, and be buried next to him. We could not afford all the cost of a funeral, but being cemated, I can be buried in the same plot. My family can dig the grave and it will not put an undue burden on my loved ones.

    • avatar Liz says:

      I disagree with you on this issue because we did not have family around to be part of the funeral nor was there anyone from the community present for the funeral. In our present society, where families move often for jobs, it is not likely that the community or relatives can or will be there for a funeral. We had to take ashes with us until we could get back near family. And yes, it is about money. We do not live in the same income bracket as our parents did nor do we get perks that allow travel or moving expenses or time off for funerals. That’s life now.

  3. avatar Marylee Nurrenbern says:

    It costs the average family at least $10,000 to do a “decent” funeral and burial. The cost of the casket alone is very large. I had a “free” burial space for my husband, at a Veteran’s Cemetery (the plot, that is) but it still cost my family a lot of money, and if it were not for financial help from my children and brother, I would have resorted to one of those cremation services that dump the ashes in the sea. In my heart, I felt this would be appropriate for my husband, who loved the ocean, but I was told the Catholic Church forbids this. I was also told that the Church requires a casket and a body present for the Mass, so we ended up doing the conventional thing. The funeral director had draped an American flag over the coffin for the Mass, and the Pastor sharply ordered that it be removed. When we went to the Vet’s Cemetery, however, he was honored with a gun salute and the flag was presented to me. I felt their treatment of our family was muych more respectful than my parish.

    All “remains” are reduced to calcium within one year, so I don’t know how resurrection works. There must be some other way Christ will bring us alive again when He returns. In the meantime, I hope that the souls of the departed are with Him in Paradise.

    I value the gravesite idea because it gives a centering point where loved ones can be remembered and prayed for – I but I simply can’t afford it. So my ashes will be put in a wall that is dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and I hope she will guide my soul to heaven anyway. I am glad that the church has loosened its rulings on this, because real material issues, and feelings, are involved.

    I appreciate your article, because it has a lot of truth in it, but I question. What happened to the ashes of St. Joan of Arc?

    • avatar Anne Erdle says:

      In regard to Marylee’s comments, a burial can be done for much less than $10,000. My brother-in-law had a $5,000 insurance policy and asked if that was enough for a funeral. We had an inexpensive casket but it was nice looking. The entire cost was less than $6,000. That is expensive, I know, and hard for some to spend, but the main part of a funeral is the Mass. The Mass was beautifully done, with readings and music and the burial, while simple, was done with great care by our pastor. We spend so much money in life for things that we cannot take with us … isn’t it important to spend money on the last thing in a person’s life?

  4. avatar Marylee Nurrenbern says:

    P.S. The priests of my former parish did not bother to show up at the wake, held at the funeral home. We were told that this event is now “a family affair” and the priests don’t have to be involved. So we said the rosary for my beloved husband by ourselves. Excuse me, Father, but what makes you think you are really running things, anyway?!!! You have gone so far away from true Catholic tradition, I’m not sure if we can ever get it back.

  5. I offer a few comments not in opposition to the article, but to look at the possibility that cremation might actually be the better choice in some circumstances.

    Our parish has a columbarium, with nearly 700 niches. It is located in a beautiful chapel dedicated to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and it is in this chapel that the early daily Mass is celebrated. Those who are interred in the columbarium are prayed for at every Mass. From Friday morning until Sunday morning, there is Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and those coming for adoration also remember the faithful departed in their prayers. When the families of the departed come for the Sunday Mass, most of them make a visit to pray for their loved ones.

    I am not arguing with the basic premise of your article, but we should keep in mind that cremation is a legitimate choice for families to make, and the way in which it is done in our parish means that the departed are being prayed for regularly — even daily — and that’s got to be a good thing! It is as close as we can get to having a parish cemetery, and I dare say our families are remembering and praying for their departed loved ones much more than if their burials had been in a cemetery several miles away.

    • avatar Aunt Raven says:

      AMEN! I took a diocesan workshop several years ago, designed to provide parishes guidelines for rites over ashes.
      This caused me, afterward, to do a lot of research on the economics of earth burials and cremations. The average person cannot research the most economical burial, nor know what state law requires at short notice — (for instance, embalming is usually not legally required). I find it disingenuous that so many bishops denigrate cremation, while they accept advertising, sponsorship, and subsidies in printing diocesan publications, etc., from the same funeral industry which makes unreasonable profit from people mostly unable to comparison shop while emotionally vulnerable.

      Dioceses are sadly remiss in educating the laity on the realities of “home funerals” by family, or a volunteer parish / diocesan “burial guild,” or confraternity in non- profit Catholic cemeteries, as our great-grandparents once did. I have participated in “home funerals” in third-world countries, –bathing, laying out bodies of my neighbors, etc., finding these customs tender, life-affirming, and cause young people to have less morbid fear of death and corpses than in the current, slick American “professionalized” funeral experience.

      I have seen Fr Phillips’ columbarium, and it is everything he says it is. There, I got the same theology of reverent connection with the Communion of the Saints as I did visiting the catacombs under St. Peter’s Basilica. –I predict his is the reverent way of the future.

  6. avatar Ed Peters says:

    It’s a fine study. Truly. It’s just that it defends as preferable a practice that, in the long run (or even the short run), is increasingly unsustainable. No matter how one parses the particulars, corporal burials are considerably more expensive than cremations. I cannot justify extra money being spent that way when heirs, the poor, and the Church are in need. For the rich, let them do as they please. For the not-rich, don’t imply that they love any less by choosing cremation. Our wedding (1984) cost a little over $ 1000. Why should our funerals, if needed today, cost six, eight, ten times that amount?

  7. avatar Trebuchet says:

    I am a Catholic and have chosen cremation, but not because of cost or availability of land for burial. In my case and there may be others like me, I have an aberrant fear of being buried. My anxiety over the subject began when I was pall bearer at my Grandmothers funeral. As we walked the casket over the grave I looked down and a fear gripped me that I have never really gotten over. There may be something genetic about this condition because although both my parents were Christians they chose cremation and later a close friend of the family and the executor of the estate told me that both of them while preparing their Wills made it explicit that they be cremated because they both had a fear of being buried. For me it’s the idea of being enclosed that causes the anxiety and I know to many it sounds foolish and I know it is because hopefully my soul will be with the Lord and I won’t know or care where my body is. But, the fear is there and I have reasoned that many Christians, although through no fault of their own, who wound up burned or had their bodies desecrated and dismembered still somehow were received into Heaven. Hopefully my fear will subside and I will choose a plot next to my wife,but for now I do pray that God will understand.

    • avatar Helen says:

      Remember that your soul will not be in your body, it will depart from the earthen vessel, kind of reminds me of the butterfly, leaving behind its cocoon :)

  8. avatar Ivana says:

    This is the result of the Church leniency. You give an inch, and they take a foot, and never go back to the old way. The Church is no longer listened to. Today you can’t; tomorrow you can. It only creates more confusion.

  9. avatar Sal V says:

    What is the Church’s stand on burial at sea?

  10. avatar Janice Brown says:

    For heaven’s sake, the Trappists make and sell a beautiful wood casket (and even pray for the person). You can find their ad in any Catholic paper, etc. You order and they ship.

  11. avatar Darnell Cuevas says:

    I enjoyed reading your comments about cremation. Our family recently honored my 42-year-old brother’s request for cremation. As we developed the Liturgy for the Mass of Resurrection, cremation was not a part of our consideration — providing a beautiful Mass and service at the cemetery to pay our lasts respects to his life was our goal — a goal that was easily accomplished. The financial aspects of the cremation were comforting to the family, as the 27-year struggle to care for my brother, was always challenging due to many monetary needs. All is well, and I pray for his soul — surely his stay in purgatory will be short after his years of suffering.

  12. avatar kate says:

    I lived on the East Coast for 80 yrs. My beloved husband of 55 yrs. died and was buried in a Catholic cemetery.
    My child convinced me to move to California, as I was all alone in New England, after having fallen twice,
    My wishes are to be buried with my husband; however, I would need the services of a West Coast undertaker, air fare to transport the casket, and the family, then another hearse and undertaker in New England to meet the arrival of my remains, to deliver me to the funeral Mass, besides the cost paying six pall bearers, the Church.
    I no longer have either friends nor relatives back East to attend either a viewing or Mass.
    Just the newspaper obituary of about fifteen lines was about $900, and the family flowers, over $1200.00.
    If cremation becomes acceptable, I see no reason why a private Mass couldn’t be celebrated in the chapel on the cemetery grounds, for the immediate family, who, incidentally, would have to come from distant parts of he country, involving airfares, hotels, and food for twelve or more adults (so far).
    Thanks for allowing me to respond.

  13. avatar Jo says:

    My parents died a year apart. They both wanted to be cremated. My mother had a fear of death, and never forgot, as a 10 year old child, climbing on a stool and looking at her father who had died at the age of 39. We had a bare bones funeral for both, but still it cost $8,000.each. And by the way, the priest never showed up at the graveside prayers for my mother. The funeral director kept apologizing and my brother-in-law said the graveside prayers. I’ll make my own decisions, thank you.

  14. avatar phil says:

    If you price burials methods, you’ll find that cremation is the least expensive. This is the main reason that cremation is growing in “popularity” as the average cost of ground/mausoleum burial is about $10,000. It is sad that economics even effects burial choices.

  15. avatar Rev. John E. Mikalajunas says:

    The church uses a white pall at the Mass of Christian Burial to call to mind Baptism. It also uses the pall to show we are all equal in the sight of God. Use a cloth covered casket, use a metal, wooden whatever you can afford. Buy your burial plot ahead of time, easy payments can be arranged, but your headstone ahead of time. Buy an insurance policy for your burial. Do not deny death, St. Francis of Assisi calls death our sister. We complain about costs, but do an honest examination of conscience on how you might not use money wisely. This is your loved one, they were central to your life. You honored them in life, why not in death. Bananas have risen in cost in one year from 39 cents per pound to 56,
    milk has risen in one year from 89cents per half gallon to $1.69. Nothing is going down, except your casket, unless you are going in the upper part of the masoleum. Bury with dignity but without excessive cost.

  16. avatar Helen says:

    I agree with Church teaching; sadly, when my mother passed away 8 months ago, it had been her wish to be cremated and have her ashes scattered; therefore, on the feast of All Saints, at a beach called Saints Rest, I accompanied my father as he spread her ashes along the shore.
    This article has given me food for thought as to my own choices, thank you, Helen.

  17. avatar Sheila Torres says:

    The Trappist Monks of New Melleray Abbey, http://www.trappistcaskets.com, make lovely hand-made caskets the most expensive of which is $3300, and the least expensive, $1000. I suggest that those interested check them out. You are under no obligation to purchase a casket from a funeral director, although you might get a hard sell. There are laws governing what funeral directors can charge. It would behoove you to look into these things before need.

  18. avatar Dee says:

    I feel the need to speak out on the disadvantages of cremation because our entire family is divided over this very subject. My father-in-law passed away 5 years ago and was cremated with no funeral. His ashes were kept by his wife in her bedroom under her bed. I was horrified. I asked her what her plans were to do with the ashes of his body and if she were going to bury him as other members of the family wanted to have a gravesite in order to visit and remember him by or just to pray at. She said she never thought about other people wanting to “visit” him at a grave. She said she wasn’t ready to let him go yet. Fast forward to a year ago and she met someone new and is going to be married. She turned the ashes over to her daughter. Now her son is upset because he never had a “turn” to have dads ashes at his house. I am beside myself with all this disrespect shown to the remains of a very loved human being. Now it has been brought up that his ashes will be spread over Lake Michigan because “dad would have liked that”. One can see all the turmoil that this has caused. There are many hurt feelings by those who would like him to be buried and those who want to let mom do what she wants with the remains. The whole family is divided and quarreling over this. Some in the family have even set up a “compromise” to split the body up by spreading some of his ashes in the lake and burying the rest so they can make everyone happy! I am beside myself with grief over this situation. If my father-in-laws body had never been cremated and would have been buried in a casket…there would have been no fighting over who gets his “turn” to keep dad…and there definitely wouldn’t have been an issue with keeping him under someones bed. Because of this situation turning into such a mess, I have explicitly given directions that I am to be buried with a Catholic funeral and under no circumstances should I be cremated. Then there is no chance of someone abusing my remains. I realize this scenario might not arise in other families…but it just goes to show the possibility of abuse that can happen by keeping the remains of a loved one in a home instead of a more sacred place like a cemetery or mausoleum. Please pray for my family in this matter.

    • avatar Helen says:

      Will pray for you Dee. I had posted that my mom was cremated. My dad and I did not know where to spread her ashes, and that indeed was her wish. Not wanting to make a hasty decision, after a few weeks of her ashes being held at the funeral home (basement), wouldnt you know, All Saints Day was approaching, and so it was on that special day that my father (and I) spread her ashes along the shore of Saints Rest.

      Helen

      • avatar the truth says:

        Helen: You will never go and visit your mothers grave site and talk to her and be in spirit with her. By cremation you created a situation like she never existed, especially with her ashes blowing in the wind over a water. Just like Hindus do on the Ganges river. Pure paganism. What the Catholic church decided at that time in 1963 was totally wrong as they, the church hierarchy was influenced by the Free Masons. And the excuse of , as there is no land, that is baloney. Look at all the golf courses. I will pray for you the rosary. J+M+J

  19. avatar elizabeth says:

    Up until recently, I had opted for cremation since the Church lifted the ban, but have changed my mind for the sake of my grandchildren. I understand one of the most difficult grieving processes follows tragedies, like airplane collisions, and ships lost at sea, and any situation where no body is recovered. I want to make my passing as easy as possible on my family, and if it helps for them to know “where Grandma is” that her soul is in heaven, ( more likely purgatory!) and her body is right here next to Great Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle and Aunt… all awaiting the Resurrection, it is worth the expense.

  20. avatar Mary says:

    My sister passed away 25 years ago after a pain-enduring cancer. She wished to be cremated, to our dismay. She had such a beautiful death mask and we wished all could have seen it. Her body was not even present at the funeral mass. Her husband (who shortly after ran off with his mistress of seven years) wanted to cast her ashes in a forested area. Her young adult children thought nothing of it either. It was painful for us to contemplate her ashes being cast in areas where undoubtedly coke cans and plastic refuse lay. Sacred space alright, Ugh ! After much prayer they came around and gave her ashes back to her mother who buried them on the same plot with another sister who passed away earlier at the age of 16 years.
    Then there is the case of my step dad who told the world he wanted to be cremated. As executor I had nothing to say about it until the fine print at the funeral home stated that if any of the family members are against cremation then it may not be done. I was very surprised at that revelation. Check the small print !
    Also, I agree that with correct economic planning one can be buried with dignity when the time comes. The family members will be edified and given a beautiful example. I will continue to respect our Catholic heritage with gratitude. My Dad died at the age of 41 years (I was six ), he had only enough insurance money($300) to cover part of the funeral.The funeral directors gave my mom a little break in price, thank God. We struggled for many years but my memories of having him buried with dignity will always surpass the money we could have had in our pockets for things less worthy. My mom fostered a love in us for all those Catholic traditions and I am eternally grateful. If you don’t like the way things are done in our Catholic tradition (disregard renegade priests please, we all put up with some) then there are other places to go where you will feel more comfortable and not in a position to rebel.

  21. avatar Jim says:

    Back in the 1950s, I helped my dad dig and fill many graves. Wood and steel caskets, wood and concrete rough boxes. When a poor person was buried by the local government, both the casket and rough box was made of pine lumber that rots rather quickly. Others were buried in concrete rough boxes and steel caskets.
    During a very wet spring season, we would have up to a foot of water at the bottom of the grave. The concrete rough box had holes in the bottom to allow the water to run in and out. I always felt badly when I had to stand on the casket to let it fill with water so it would stay in the rough box. I also knew that every other casket in the cemetery was full of water.
    I buried my mother in 2011. Because of family, my mothers funeral cost near $12,000, not counting the burial plot. That was about as low as we could purchase it. Cremation was about $3000.
    What kind of charity could be done with the $9000 difference?
    From dust thou art, and into dust thou shall return. Does it matter how we get there?

  22. avatar the truth says:

    The church for 1900 years preached against cremation. Not only in imitation of Christ who was interred in a tomb but also we are created in the likeness of God. That is why our bodies are temples. To the honor and glory of God. I don’t understand the reason for the Church to have changed the funeral rites.. It is a known fact that only pagans religions perform CREMATION. Has the Church become PAGAN? Please consider what you are doing to your loved ones in regard to burials. God bless you all.

  23. avatar MaryAnn says:

    My mother donated her body to science. Three days after death, a Memorial Mass was held with three priests and 300 in attendance. After a year, her cremains were returned to the family and we had a grave side ceremony officiated by a priest with a repass afterwards. Her remains are buried in the ground next to my father in the cemetery.

  24. avatar Rose says:

    My daughter died two years ago at the age of 21. When we had to decide, it was difficult. We asked ourselves “what would she have wanted;” of course she couldn’t tell us. I have two other daughters, one said she would want to be cremated and the other said she would want a casket. We decided to give her both. We had her in the casket for the rosary and viewing and then had her cremated. I have struggled in my mind that maybe that wasn’t the best choice, but it’s too late. We had her buried in the Catholic cemetery. I never had to experience a close death in the family before. Even though money wasn’t the reason for our decision to cremate her, I was appalled at how much the mortuary charges. They will not let you proceed with the services until they receive their money. Death is a big business and I cannot believe they charge so much, it seems sinful to me. When I visit her at the cemetery and pray for her soul and all souls, I see that a lot of graves that have sunk because the coffin deteriorates, I know that hers won’t. It hurts to know that some would think that you burn trash. I love my daughter so much and she was not trash to me. The church approves cremation as long as the remains are buried on blessed grounds. I don’t know what’s right or wrong, but I do know that when a death happens it is difficult to make decisions. It is not something you think about or want to think about. If the church did not approve cremations I would not have had her cremated. This is where we need direction from the Catholic Church.

  25. avatar Maria says:

    Thank you for your article.. I do not think people reflect deeply enough of the beauty and love God created the body..used to serve God their whole lives. If our lives are to reflect godliness should it not be rendered with respect at death? The martyrs such as Joan of Arc chose to beautifully give her life to God . Their ashes were the result of sadness of sin inflicted upon them. Could you even imagine Our Lord being cremated or Our Lady? Of course, Jesus is Divine and Our Lady without sin, nevertheless there is an aspect to caring for the body with love and integrity at the death as their bodies were. Cremation is such a violent action on the body. Are we not to reflect Our Lord’s example? ( Except for in cases of war and plaque.) Several of our relatives were buried in a pine box and not cremated. Their funerals were simple but spiritually beautiful.

  26. avatar Rose says:

    It is my understanding that there can be a memorial Mass with the ashes of the deceased present and I noticed that the Trappists also make lovely inexpensive wooden urns for cremains. My husband has been out of work for 2 years now and a costly funeral would be out of the question for us. If cremation is permissible, why should we feel guilty about it? It seems to be a matter of preference and a matter of financial ability. None of our bodies will escape deterioration unless we are an “incorruptible” saint. I think our main concern should be the repose of our souls after death and the hope of being resurrected in our glorified bodies. We should show the greatest respect for the deceased body in whichever mode of burial we choose. That should go without saying.

  27. avatar Krystyna says:

    Considering the extremely high cost of a casket – even a low end casket, the funeral parlor costs for a wake and conveyance to the grave site, the insane cost of a grave site and head stone, it is ludicrous to suggest that costs can be cut by sharing the cost of a post burial meal! I do not think the author has any notion of the economic reality of most Catholics these days. I would love to be buried along side my husband in a grave like my parents and grandparents had, but the truth is that the cost of such a burial would likely mean that the survivor would lose the house in the aftermath. I’ve left instructions for my husband and son – straight from the morgue to the crematorium for $500. Bring the ashes to my parents’ grave along with a nice potted plant and put them into the hole. I don’t need my name on the headstone. In 50 years or less I will have been forgotten anyway. Have a private Mass said later on and pray the rosary for the repose of my soul.

  28. avatar Juan Oskar says:

    It is soooo expensive to DIE in this country! There are state laws, rules, codes, taxes, and mortuary lobbies and unions. Death is big business and a lot of people make lots of money when we die. I know poor people that have an unexpected death in the family and have to scarf up $3,000 to $7,000 to get the person buried. My neighbor’s wife died about a year ago. To get family together etc. …$24,000 DOLLARS!!!

  29. avatar Sly says:

    This is all very fresh for me … my mom’s funeral and burial was just two weeks ago. When she had her stroke episode (around dinner time on Sunday eve), I called the parish office first, then 911. The recorded messages says to press 2 for emergency sacramental needs. The call was routed to our pastor’s cell phone. He answered, said he was in his car headed somewhere, but asked for the address and changed direction to come over. The sirens could be heard in the distance as I opened the door for him. He anointed my mom, and then held the door for the EMTs as I stayed with my mom, who was still conscious (until Tues). On Wednesday, the hospital called saying her breathing was erratic and she may go any minute. Again, I called the rectory, but the Pastor was away. The Associate (who had visited my mom during Advent), asked if the Pastor had given her the Apostolic Pardon … I said I wasn’t sure, as things had been rushed. He said, I’ll meet you there. With family and a couple of close friends, Father came to her room, anointed her again (she was eligible because of the turn for the worse) and gave her the Apostolic Pardon. I then asked if we could pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet for her (Jesus promised St. Faustina that if you pray the Chaplet in the presence of the dying, “I will come not as Just Judge, but as Merciful Savior.”) She made it through the night, but died early Thursday morning. We made funeral arrangements with the parish, and then the funeral home. The Associate came to the funeral home, and led the Holy Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and then the Official Ritual Wake prayers. People responded to the prayers and his leadership with a resounding unity that even he commented on afterwards. There were a number of priests that concelebrated her funeral Mass, including the Associate as main celebrant, which was very fitting because my mom was the last to die of a large family, that included two brothers who were priests. It was all very beautiful. We are very blessed to have good priests and a good parish. So, besides that basic foundation, it is good for you as caretaker/family to pray with your elderly or infirm loved ones, or even healthy family members on a regular basis, so it becomes part of their daily life, then to request regular visits from the priests (at one point, ours came once a month, or every other month to visit, and bring communion, and at least they come during Advent and Lent for Confession and to bring Holy Communion), request that she/he be put on the homebound list to receive Holy Communion weekly, if that ministry exists in your parish … lay Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion serve in a monthly rotation to help provide that service … find out if the Sunday Mass is broadcast on TV in your area … find out what time and on what station, and make sure they are able to watch/listen to it, continue to send in one’s weekly parish donation (what one can afford according to the Gospel), which is good for you, to continue to contribute to the support of the Church (salvation is a free gift, but the means to bring it to you – parish buildings, priests’ living quarters/expenses, staff, vehicles, etc. cost money). Don’t be afraid or too timid to ask for these services of the Church, which are normal … the regular pastoral care of the parish’s homebound is a historical and integral part of the Church’s mission … So, I know the focus of the article was on cremation vs full body burial … but I’ve just been through it, and I’ve seen how important the pastoral care of the LIVING is, for elderly or infirm, but especially in the last days of a person’s life. MAKE SURE that your wishes have been fully communicated in writing to those who would be responsible at the time of, and following, your death, so that you will receive the normal pastoral care of your parish, and have a Catholic wake, funeral and burial. Some adult children of devout Catholic parents, have lapsed in their baptismal faith and no longer recognize the value of what our faith offers, so you must insure that your desires are communicated, and that they agree to carry those reasonable wishes out. Thank you for the good and thoughtful article, and the good illuminating comments which follow. Lastly, do not forget to pray for the deceased, and have Masses said, especially on their birthdays and death anniversaries.

  30. avatar Suzanne says:

    This is directed to Barbara Medcalf: Barbara, do not lay awake at night worrying. However, do see what you can do to change some of your plans. Caskets, as odd as it seems, can be rented. Is there some way you can manage to add that to your plan? As a woman who has had a mother-in-law cremated without a proper funeral, and an aunt and uncle, I know how important that Mass of Resurrection with the body present is for the family. Go ahead with your cremation, but do so after the Mass. Also, stipulate that your cremains are to be buried with your husband. Even in our “struggles,” children want to do what they can to help their parents. If they buy you presents for occasions now, tell them you don’t need material things, but would prefer to be buried with their father, and that would be a greater gift.

  31. This is one of those times that clarity still does not shine. Recently there has been a movie that many Catholics have been encouraged to see – The Way. The Way of St. James. One of the main points of the movie is the scattering of a son’s ashes along “The Way” by the mourning father. Symbolically, this gesture is a sign of a father’s love and sorrow for his lost son but doesn’t it fly in the face of tradition? Is it another aim at diluting Church teaching?

    • avatar the truth says:

      Elizabeth; You are so beautiful you make a good case against cremation. You got the right Catholic attitude. You did not get caught up in an un Catholic web. Make sure it will be a requiem mass. In order to go to heaven please follow the teachings of the church.. Be pure in mind and body. Go to confession every 2 or 3 weeks by a validly ordained priest. Receive communion at a valid mass in state of grace. Wear the brown scapular and pray the rosary every day. J+M+J

  32. avatar frumpymonk says:

    There are two distince kinds of replies here. The first kind deals with what the Church can, and cannot tell, someone about the disposition of the dead.

    For those responders who say that the Church can’t tell them what to do, please reconsider what you say. We belong to a magisterial and hierarchical body on earth — Christ, the Holy Father, the bishops, the priests, the laity, all guided by Tradition and Scripture. If you say that the Church can’t tell you what to do, then you are lifting yourself up as a “magisterium of one” and you are no longer Catholic in obedience to those over you. Find another church or be reconciled to the core of our faith, and accept what it teaches as normative, authoritative, and binding on our lives, temporal and eternal.

    The other kind of responses deal with the financial side of funeral arrangments. Yes, the Church desires the burial of a body and, yes, it is expensive. However, it is God’s perfect will or “first” will. We must acknowledge that. But the Church as also made provision for cremation — you might call this God’s permissive will. In this, we can look to the biblical precedent of what one can do to please the will of God. For example, in the Old Testament Law, when an individual had to bring a burnt offering to the Tabernacle for their sins (Leviticus 1), the Law required a bull. If the person couldn’t afford a bull, they could bring a sheep or goat. If that was beyond their reach, pigeons or doves. And if they were totally destitute, they could bring bread. Each kind of offering was prayed over, broken, and burned on the altar. Each one had the same effect of appeasing God. God’s perfect and preferred modality was the bull, but God’s permissive, and perfectly acceptable modality, was bread. In fact, when the Holy Family brought Jesus to the Temple for His dedication, what did they bring? Pigeons (doves). They weren’t rich, but they were most certainly “acceptable.”

    In this case, I speak of one’s abilituy to bring what God desires. If you can afford to bury the body of your loved one according to Church tradition, do it. If the financial burden is overwhelming, cremation is just fine. But if you have the means to bury the body, but refuse to because “the Church can’t tell me what to do” then you need to go to confession.

    In short, each according to his ability under obedience to the Church.

  33. avatar Kathy Lewis says:

    Two and one half years ago our daughter passed away. The most painful death for anyone is the death of a child. We chose cremation and even though we did not have a wake – the pain of loss was so excruciating – the funeral was a true celebration of life and after over 400 people came to me and my husband to give their condolescences, I never felt we had short changed our child.
    She was placed in a beautiful urn with a crucifix etched on the urn. Her ashes were placed in an ossuary that was carried by our son-in-law and a dear friend.
    Seven priests were there to remember her. Her body was incensed and the In Paradisum was beautifully sung acapela by one of the priests whom she dearly loved and admired.
    We stood for one hour outside our church to received those who wished to let us know they were with us in our grief. Then we took her to her place of rest – a Catholic cemetery, where again we had three priests there to share with us the burial rites and to inter her body to its final resting place. Then we came to a reception held by one of our dear parishioners at their home where many of the people came and again suported us in our time of need.
    Never did I think or do i believe now, we were not respectful, or loving or did right by our child.
    There is a beautiful way we can bury our loved ones with dignity and respect for the body, which has always been the churches concern. Cremation doesn’t change that.

  34. avatar Charlie Step says:

    I am a catholic funeral director in suburban Detroit. I am overwhelmed by the uncatechised, the unchurched. The second largest denomination in the US is people who say “I guess I’m catholic.” I try to bring them closer to their church and faith. An important part of that is physically looking at Mom or Dad and seeing their own eternity. The cost shouldn’t be the problem. For $895 I will pick up and cremate, for an additional $375 they can have a moment at the funeral home. This month, and it’s only the 13th, I have had three funerals with open caskets in church for less than $3,800. Divided between your six children (that a good catholic should have had) divided by five (to exclude the black sheep in every family) is $740 each. Medicaid patients can get $600, social security pays $255, veterans and their wives can save on cremation with free burial in a National Cemetery. When the cost is a problem, families need to do a little more research. Thank you for the inspiration.

  35. avatar JOHN GRONDELSKI says:

    Thank you for all the comments received. They fell into two groups: the “body like cocoon/what I do with my body” comments, and the expense comments.
    On the former: what I wanted to highlight in this article is that the body is not a “cocoon” — it is a co-heir of eternity, we will enter eternity definitively body and soul (this is why we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead”). So, we should not disparage the body nor think that the Christian community and its received tradition has nothing to say to us about this issue. Quite clearly I want to challenge the idea that this is “just” my “private” decision. Being a Christian means there is a shared wisdom of the ecclesial community.

    On the expense issue–which the vast majority of commentators raised–this clearly poses a pastoral issue that the Church should not dismiss with appropriately pious comments devoid of real action. Clearly, the cost of funerals seems to be a major factor driving cremation, and this demand some pastoral response. The Trappists provide some alternative, but most people don’t plan ahead for their departure. Perhaps local presbyteral councils in diocesan deaneries–or even the bishops themselves at some conference meeting–might turn some of their attention to the cost factor. It might initiate a fruitful discussion.

  36. avatar the truth says:

    You all put a nice spin to cremation to justify your un Catholic behavior. Your body is created from dust and it should return to dust. As it is written. Christ glorifies Himself through his creation!! Cremation was pushed by the free masons. The Anglican church in 1932 decided to allow contraception. It was the slippery slope, it led to abortions. So now we have a situation that science introduce us to Chemical liquefacation. It is the ability to pour your “loved one down the drain”. It is even cheaper than Cremation. An other way of getting rid of your “loved one” is being freeze dried after witch he or she will be pulverised and blown in the wind.. Cremation is the slippery slope for unbelievers. When we got married the first thing we did was to buy a plot in a cemetery and paid for our funeral. Like any good Catholic should do..J+M+J

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  1. [...] Cremation: Recalling Some Basic Catholic Truths – John M. Grondeleski, Hmltc & Pstrl Rvw [...]

  2. [...] 2012, 2:06 PM Matthew Cantirino John Grondeleski at Homelitics & Pastoral Review takes an opportunity to clarify the Catholic Church’s teaching on the subject of cremation, an option that has slowly and [...]

  3. [...] Most writers note that the Church rescinded its prohibition on cremation in 1963, and Catholic acceptance of cremation is fast mirroring the general population.…more [...]

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