The Church rescinded its prohibition on cremation, but does not consider burial and cremation equally valid methods.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Most writers note that the Church rescinded its prohibition on cremation in 1963, and Catholic acceptance of cremation is fast mirroring the general population.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
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.
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.
- Stacy Jones, “Cremation is Gaining Favor with Jerseyans,” Newark Sunday Star-Ledger, August 14, 2011, section 3, pp. 1, 3. ↩
- See Canon 1176.3, Codex juris canonici. ↩
- Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptor hominis, # 8, quoting the Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, # 22. ↩