NOVEMBER 13 - Last month the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome issued an instruction “regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation.” This Instruction is entitled: Ad resurgendum cum Christo (“To Rise with Christ”). While re-affirming the Catholic Church’s traditional practice of intact-body burial (the “pious practice of burying the dead”), the document also censured the practice of not burying the urn of a person’s cremated remains. Speaking to reporters, Gerhard Cardinal Muller the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith declared: “Belief in the resurrection of the flesh is fundamental. A human cadaver is not trash, [an anonymous burial or scattering of ashes] is not compatible with the Christian faith.”

Such a clarification from the CDF is very welcome. The message is that while cremation may be permitted for a Catholic, the urn with the cremated remains must be treated with the same reverence as if it were still an intact body, and properly interred, with memorialization. Cremation’s increased popularity in the United States these days has been in no small part due to aggressive marketing of the practice as a cheaper and quicker way of disposing of the dead. It feeds into the American denial-of death and sits well with New Age spirituality. Most Catholics today lack the point of reference for gauging just how strongly the Church has opposed the practice of cremation. Here is an example taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia Dictionary (by Donald Attwater, 2nd Revised Edition, 1949):

Cremation is the destruction of the body after death by fire, the ashes usually being preserved; strictly forbidden by the Church which enjoins burial of the body out of reverence to what was in life the temple of the Holy Ghost (I Cor. 6:19) Nevertheless, cremation is not intrinsically wrong, and so may be allowed by ecclesiastical authority for a grave reason, e.g. public health. The Church legislates strictly against it, in addition to the above reason, because its practice has become associated with atheists and materialists, who use it as a manifestation of their disbelief in human immortality and resurrection, and because it is a custom repugnant to Christian tradition and to the universal mind and practice of Christian people.

All of these things are still true today. What has changed is that ecclesiastical authority has relaxed its strictures against cremation—in some part a concession to human weakness because some Catholic people were going to do it anyways once cremation got a hold in popular custom. It does not follow, however, that the Church has done an about-face and therefore now “approves” cremation, as if it were just as good as intact-body burial. In my role as a priest, when this subject comes up, I never hesitate to remind people that cremation is not the Catholic way, that it is an unnecessarily wanton and violent destruction of the human body which should be allowed to dissolve back peacefully into the earth until the day of resurrection. In contrast to the customs of the pagan cultures all around them the Jews of antiquity, and the Christians following them, shunned the practice of cremation. If someone has pre-planned a funeral with cremation for himself, I would urge that person to change those plans. And if you are the one responsible for paying and handling the funeral of a loved one, you should not consider yourself morally bound by the deceased’s wishes for cremation. In the next life, the soul of that deceased person will understand, seeing things with an absolute clarity which he did not see on earth.

(Fr. Higgins)

About Our Parish

Mary Immaculate of Lourdes is Newton and Needham Massachusetts's oldest Roman Catholic Parish. Founded as Saint Mary's Parish in 1870 it was renamed "Mary Immaculate of Lourdes" when the new Church was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, 1910. In addition to being a regular territorial parish of the Archdiocese of Boston it is also a "Mission Parish" since 2007 with a special apostolate for the Traditional Latin Mass (1962 Missal).

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