Died with Christ, Buried with Christ, Risen with Christ: Considerations on Catholic Cremations
The month of November has traditionally been a time for Christians to reflect on the mystery of death and hope in the resurrection, especially as we pray for the souls of the faithfully departed. Since the Year of Faith calls us to reflect more deeply on the main tenets of our faith, this is a particularly good time for us to reflect on our belief in the resurrection of the body and the Church’s teaching on Christian burial.
Since the earliest centuries of the Church, the words of the Apostles’ Creed have been confessed in one form or another by Christian men and women. Resounding with the voices of the faithful throughout the generations, we also profess this faith, with these concluding words: “I believe in … the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.” The early creeds developed from Baptism liturgies, where those preparing for the cleansing waters were called upon to state publicly that they have received and subsequently accepted the whole faith of the Church. Even today, the Profession of Faith continues to be a central part of the celebration of this Sacrament.
The context of Baptism gives the clearest direction for unpacking the rich doctrine contained in each of the short phrases of the Apostles’ Creed. The original form of this particular confession of faith is handed over from the Church of Rome and is preserved in the Latin language. Since we are accustomed to reciting this Creed in English, the original Latin words might surprise us: “Credo in … carnis resurrectionem” – “I believe in … the resurrection of the flesh.” As with all expressions of faith, every word we recite is significant and the choice of the word “flesh” is no different.
In the fifth century, St. Augustine struggled to explain succinctly the meaning of this part of our Creed. He preached, “Now with regard to the resurrection of the flesh (which is not like that of certain persons who have risen from the dead but have afterwards died, but is like the resurrection of Christ’s flesh, that is, to life everlasting), I do not see how I can explain matters briefly.” We can imagine this saint’s listeners groaned inwardly and prepared for a long sermon! Fortunately, for us, this brief statement says a great deal about our belief in the resurrection of the dead: it is not like Lazarus who was resuscitated by Jesus in St. John’s Gospel, nor is it like the miraculous resurrections of those at the time of the crucifixion. All of those persons died again. We believe that the resurrection of the flesh is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose victory over death is definitive and irreversible. Christ’s resurrection is to become ours as well.
This is why this article of the Creed makes sense in the context of Baptism, for it is in Baptism that we die with Christ. St. Paul writes, “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection” (Rom 6:3-4). Baptism prepares our body, not for death, but for resurrection. Our very flesh has been consecrated for eternity! This is why the Church held the custom for centuries that the bodies of Catholics are to be reverenced and honored with Christian burial. The Catacombs in ancient Rome give testimony to the reverence Christians paid to the bodies of their deceased loved ones. The iconography adorning their walls professes clearly the hope each Christian holds in bodily rising again with Christ.
From early on, the Church did not permit cremation, because it was seen to deny the belief in the resurrection of the flesh. Although the Catholic Church now permits the cremation and necessary internment of the remains, the clear preference remains for the burial of the body following the celebration of the funeral Mass. In fact, some have even chosen to bring the body to the church for the funeral Mass, then cremate and bury the remains afterwards.
The permission for cremation came to us recently, in 1963, when the Church lifted its prohibition. In 1983, when the new Code of Canon Law was issued, the Church further clarified this permission stating that a Catholic may choose cremation provided they are not doing so for reasons that deny the Catholic teaching (canon 1176.3). Such reasons may include an explicit or implicit denial of the resurrection of the body or of the dignity of the body. In 1997, the attitude of the Church toward cremation was further refined when the Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments granted an indult for the bishops of the United States to allow the celebration of a funeral Mass in the presence of cremated remains. However, whenever this happens, the funeral liturgy is altered to suit the unique situation: while holy water is used, the Church does not permit covering the urn with a white pall nor incensing the urn, since the incense is reserved to honor the body of the baptized.
Yet, prior to these liturgical questions of a funeral with cremated remains, there are some other considerations that need to be taken seriously when choosing cremation. First, the cremated remains of a Catholic Christian must always be placed in a worthy vessel. A single urn is to be used. Ashes of a departed person may not be divided up into several containers. Although the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania permits cremated remains to be taken anywhere, the Catholic Church is clear that it is contrary to her teaching to divide the remains among different cemeteries or among different members of a family. Today, there is sometimes the option of devising jewelry or artwork out of the cremated remains of a loved one. Such actions are strictly prohibited by the Church. Similarly, urns containing remains may not be kept in private homes or scattered in any way.
All cremated remains must be interred with the proper rites of Christian burial. For the Catholic Church, the law is simple: should a Christian choose cremation, the entire remains must be contained in a dignified urn and either buried in the ground or entombed in a cemetery columbarium or mausoleum niche with the burial rites. This burial is a profession of faith! For those who have died with Christ in Baptism are to be buried like Christ as they await the day of resurrection.
Our prayer reveals our faith and directs our practice. The Committal Prayer offered by the Church on these occasions sums up beautifully what we believe and how our choices are to reflect that belief: “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother/sister N., and we commit his/her earthly remains to the ground … (or their resting place): earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
By Father Joshua R. Brommer, STL
Special to The Witness
(Father Brommer is the Liturgy Coordinator for the Diocese of Harrisburg.)
Click here to read FAQ on the Proper Handling of Ashes Following Cremation
Click here to read Cremation and Burial Instructions Released by Vatican