Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cremation - not in keeping with the Christian vision of the goodness of matter

The Church permits cremation. The Catechism states tersely:

The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body. (n. 2301)

The above quotation is footnoted with a reference to Canon 1176 #3 which states:

The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.

Given this grudging permission ("does not prohibit") how is it that cremation has become so common amongst Catholics? It has always seemed to me unworthy of the dignity of the body of a baptised person - being a Temple of God - to consign it to the flames of a cremator. As Christ himself descended into the tomb after His death in anticipation of His Resurrection, so burial is a more perfect imitation of Christ the Lord as our bodies rest in the tomb awaiting the resurrection of the dead at the Last Day.

I have just finished reading John Henry Newman's "Development of Christian Doctrine". He quotes an early witness of the Christians who testifies that "They execrate the funeral-pile." That is to say: they do not burn the bodies of their deceased but rather bury them piously. Pagans, on the other hand, "hold corpses and sepulchres in aversion." For pagans, because matter, and therefore the human body, is essentially bad, it can be burned. Yet for Christians, the body is a holy thing having been united to the Divine Person of the Son of God.

And of course Catholic venerate the relics of the saints, their very bodies.

Here is the relevant section of Newman's work about this matter which you can read in its full context here:

"Perish the thought," says Manes, "that our Lord Jesus Christ should have descended through the womb of a woman." "He descended," says Marcion, "but without touching her or taking aught from her." "Through her, not of her," said another. "It is absurd to assert," says a disciple of Bardesanes, "that this flesh in which we are imprisoned shall rise again, for it is well called a burden, a tomb, and a chain." "They execrate the funeral-pile," says Cæcilius, speaking of Christians, "as if bodies, though withdrawn from the flames, did not all resolve into dust by years, whether beasts tear, or sea swallows, or earth covers, or flame wastes." According to the old Paganism, both the educated and vulgar held corpses and sepulchres in aversion. They quickly rid themselves of the remains even of their friends, thinking their presence a pollution, and felt the same terror even of burying-places which assails the ignorant and superstitious now. It is recorded of Hannibal that, on his return to the African coast from Italy, he changed his landing-place to avoid a ruined sepulchre. "May the god who passes between heaven and hell," says Apuleius in his Apology, "present to thy eyes, O Emilian, all that haunts the night, all that alarms in burying-places, all that terrifies in tombs." George of Cappadocia could not direct a more bitter taunt against the Alexandrian Pagans than to call the temple of Serapis a sepulchre. The case had been the same even among the Jews; the Rabbins taught, that even the corpses of holy men "did but serve to diffuse infection and defilement." "When deaths were Judaical," says the writer who goes under the name of St. Basil, "corpses were an abomination; when death is for Christ, the relics of Saints are precious. It was anciently said to the Priests and the Nazarites, 'If any one shall touch a corpse, he shall be unclean till evening, and he shall wash his garment;' now, on the contrary, if any one shall touch a Martyr's bones, by reason of the grace dwelling in the body, he receives some participation of his sanctity." Nay, Christianity taught a reverence for the bodies even of heathen. The care of the dead is one of the praises which, as we have seen above, is extorted in their favour from the Emperor Julian; and it was exemplified during the mortality which spread through the Roman world in the time of St. Cyprian. "They did good," says Pontius of the Christians of Carthage, "in the profusion of exuberant works to all, and not only to the household of faith. They did somewhat more than is recorded of the incomparable benevolence of Tobias. The slain of the king and the outcasts, whom Tobias gathered together, were of his own kin only."


  1. Perhaps in some ways cremation is more respectful than consigning a body to the earth to be devoured by rats and worms!

  2. Indeed! And yet we read that an English bishop (Catholic)was cremated recently.

  3. In many places burial is, as I understand it, prohibitively expensive compared to cremation.

  4. Rats and worms, I suggest, are part of the squeamish argument. Mas was made from the dust/slime of the earth - not great! But that slime has been raised to a great dignity by the Incarnation. Even rats and worms are good!

    Expense: if that is the reason, should we not assist those who are poor to bury their dead? Burying the dead is a Corporal Work of Mercy.

  5. Why suggest at all that the actions of good and sincere people are demeaning themselves and their loved ones? Is this not leading people into bad faith?
    From the dust we were raised and to dust we shall return - dust or slime, does it really make such a difference? Will our Saviour regard me differently when he raises my body on the last day? Of course not!

  6. Paul, Bedfordshire22 August, 2011 10:48

    I think it had a lot to do with a now obsolete belief that if you were cremated your body was destroyed and you could not rise from the dead.

    There is also the matter of public health in large cities which do not have the space for the massive cemetries that would be required.

  7. @robinmolieres: how have I suggested that the actions of good and sincere people are demeaning themselves and their loved ones? I am simply expressing my personal opinion - backing it up with Blessed John Henry Newman's words - that cremation is not what is best. The Church permits it, I do not preach against it. On my blog, however, I hope to provoke some debate on the matter. I would also, personally, like to see a change regarding the practice of cremation amongst Catholics. This does not mean I consider those who have been cremated or who will be cremated to be in bad faith.

    I do not intend to cause any offence, although I know that there is always a risk of some being offended.

    Will our Saviour look differently upon us depending on the manner in which our remains have been disposed of? Probably not. But that is not the same as saying it does not matter.

  8. Frequently burial also results in total destruction of the corpse, it depends on the soil there was nothing left of Cardinal Newmans body when the went looking for it. My late Mother thought cemeteries were a waste of good ground that could be used for other purposes. The atoms we are made of remain we are made of atoms that have always existed ,matter is constant but ever changing. All my family have been cremated for many years but the last funeral for my uncle was a burial as that is now greener. I always fancied a woodland or meadow burial but since our sons death I will be cremated and my ashes and my husbands will be placed in the triple cremation plot we bought in St Davids, several generations of my husbands family are buried there. It's 100 miles from here so after the funeral a burial down there was impractical. We took his ashes down ourselves about a week after the funeral, the local catholic priest and the Anglican dean of St Davids performed the rites. It is a blessed place.

  9. One of the reasons so many Catholics I know opt for cremation is the ridiculous cost of a funeral with burial of the body. It's outrageous that a family practically has to go into debt just to afford a funeral.

  10. Fr. Boyle: I'd be all for it! Though I would never be able to give very much - I wonder who WOULD, in the current times?

  11. In case anyone is still following this, I think the point I was hoping people would concentrate on was:
    - what does the Church "earnestly recommend"?
    - what does the Church (merely) "permit"?
    - what should be our response to this teaching?

  12. robin molieres23 August, 2011 01:02

    People generally want to do the best for a deceased relative. Describing their choice as "unworthy of the dignity of the body of a baptised person" is perhaps demeaning, Father John.
    As cremation becomes the choice of more and more Catholics, I hope that the wording in the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law will be modified so that is less grudging and more generously affirming of considered and sincere action.
    I believe the thing that matters most is not the outward form of disposal of a body but our respectful attitude towards that which was the temple of the Holy Spirit.

  13. Paul, Bedfordshire25 August, 2011 10:25

    diddleymaz wrote "The atoms we are made of remain we are made of atoms that have always existed [since they were brought into existence billions of years ago at the moment of creation], matter is constant but ever changing"

    Something we did not know a couple of centuries ago and with this knowledge it is obvious that someone with the knowledge and power to do so (which we don't have) could recreate all our bodies fully as they existed in any point of time. The reason why cremation does not bother me.

    Another reason why devotion to the Sacred Head of Christ the King should be promoted.

    1. While I agree with everything you have said in principal the fact remains that for many Catholics a funeral with a body remains out of their financial reach. I don't see anyone acknowledging this or coming up with any solutions. It's much cheaper in Canada to bury ashes. I also trust in the mercy and power of God to resurrect my loved ones on the last day.

    2. As I mentioned above, we should help. Here we have a Pastor's Emergency Fund which can be used to assist those who cannot afford to bury their dead. As mentioned above, to bury the dead is a Corporal Work of Mercy. Yes, of course the Lord can resurrect our ashes otherwise the Church would not permit cremation. But we should still examine the difference between what should be the norm and what is (merely) permitted.

  14. I think keeping ashes in Urns is the best to show the love you have for the departed one and as the funeral is getting expensive it best way to keep the remembrances with you.


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