An urn displayed on a alter with candlesticks and flowers.
An urn displayed on a alter with candlesticks and flowers.

The Roman Catholic Church provides specific teachings and instructions related to the issue of cremation. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, an essential guide for church doctrine and practices, the church's position on cremation relates to its teachings regarding respect for the dead and its doctrine regarding resurrection of the body. While Catholic doctrine permits the practice of cremation, it emphasizes a preference for burial or entombment because of the effects of the practice on the body. When loved ones wish to cremate the body of a deceased Catholic, the Church urges them to follow specific steps related to the cremation and to disposition of the remains during the process of the Funeral Rites of the Catholic Church.

Preference for Burial and Entombment

Although the Church allows cremation, it considers the decision to cremate an extraordinary choice. Catholic teaching emphasizes respect for the human body and, so, a preference for burial of the body. Catholic doctrine and the contemporary Church continue to grant greater dignity and value to the burial of the body of a baptized Catholic. This preference relates to the Catholic Order of Funerals and its imitation of Jesus' burial as described in the gospel of John, chapter 19. Catholics who decide for cremation must attest that, in their decision, they do not deny belief in the doctrine of resurrection of the body. In the same way that the Church honors the body of a deceased person in imitation of Jesus, so Catholic doctrine teaches that the body will resurrect as Christ resurrected, with his body intact.

Cremation in the U.S. Church

In 1997, in an environment in which cremation had become a common way to treat the remains of the body, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments allowed diocesan bishops to permit cremated remains to be present during Funeral Mass. As families increasingly choose cremation, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops urges bishops and pastors to educate such related parties as funeral directors to provide clear guidance about respectful Catholic burials as loved ones make difficult decisions in challenging times. The USCCB also encourages pastors to exhibit sensitivity toward those who select cremation, particularly when chosen out of financial hardship.

Context of the Order of Christian Funerals

According to the USCCB, in ideal circumstances, cremation occurs after the Funeral Mass. This allows for the presence of the body at the Vigil for the Deceased, one of the rites of funerals in Catholic tradition. After viewing of the body, the Funeral Mass exhibits full reverence for the body's sanctity with sprinkling of holy water, placing the pall (a white cloth that is placed over the casket) and using incense over the body. The Vigil of the Deceased and the Funeral Mass give attendees opportunities to gather with the body in various degrees of formality and to express essential elements of Catholic faith and tradition.

After the Funeral

After these opportunities to express Catholic beliefs in visible ways over the present body, cremation may take place. The Rite of Committal follows cremation. The Rite of Committal consists of burying or entombing the remains in a grave, columbarium (an above-ground structure designed to hold cremated remains) or mausoleum. Because the Catholic Church insists on respect for the human body, Catholic teaching does not believe that scattering the ashes or keeping them in homes are appropriately respectful dispositions of the remains.