The Code of Canon Law issued in 1983 said the church “earnestly recommends” the custom of burying the body as it is, but does not prohibit cremation unless it is done for reasons “contrary to Christian teaching.” That’s a change from the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which prohibited cremation. Still, the Catholic preference is to have the funeral Mass with the body. If cremation is the plan, it should happen afterward.
But since 1997, the U.S. bishops have had permission, in cases where the body has already been cremated for financial need or some other worthy reason, to allow the cremated remains to be present at the funeral Mass or liturgy. “The dead body is still something that is very much a part of our incarnational theology,” says Holy Cross Father Richard Rutherford, a University of Portland theologian and an expert in Christian funeral rites. “The body is very sacred. Christians always buried or entombed. They followed Jewish practice and saw it as taken for granted. It’s all incarnational.” That’s why the Catholic way has been to honor the body after death as far as possible, especially at the funeral Mass.
“The body of a deceased loved one forcefully brings to mind the mystery of life and death and our belief that our human bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and destined for future glory at the resurrection of the dead,” says a statement from the U.S. bishops. “This is the body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. This is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing.” The idea that the body will be reassembled at the end times figures strongly in Christian burial practice. The sense was even stronger in the early church.
In the Middle East and Mediterranean, many ancient Christians laid bodies of loved ones to rest in tombs and after a time would return to wash the bones reverently. The bones would then go in a lovingly-made box — called an ossuary — and be placed back in the tomb. Sometimes, the boxes would go into a larger house or area with remains of other Christians. In ancient Rome, Christians used the catacombs for the purpose.
Today, that raises the question of what should be done with cremated remains. Sprinkling them in the ocean or in the woods is contrary to Christian custom. The general rule is to treat the cremated remains as one would a dead body. “We don’t just throw a body on the ground or toss it into the woods,” says Msgr. Dennis O’Donovan, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Portland and director of Catholic cemeteries in western Oregon. Msgr. O’Donovan says cremated remains are out of place on the mantle or in a closet. “We would not put a body there,” he explains. The Catholic way is to bury or entomb the cremated remains, preferably at a Catholic cemetery. “That way the church still gathers and prays and looks to the dead,” Father Rutherford says. “The person is remembered.”
Another option: For a fee far smaller than burial, ashes can be placed in the grave of a loved one. The church asks that cremated remains not be divided up. “We wouldn’t say, ‘You take mom’s leg,’ and send it with your brother and give the other one to your sister. Why would we do that with ashes?” says Tim Corbett, superintendent of cemeteries for the archdiocese. Corbett has seen people come and scatter cremated remains over the tops of graves, a practice he tries to forestall.
Geri Bryant, managing director of Zeller Chapel of the Roses funeral home in Northeast Portland, tells people to remember that cremation may change the shape of the body, but the human incarnational mystery remains. “That is still a person, not fireplace ash,” she says. “We are not garbage. We cannot be burned and tossed away. We need the cemeteries. This is the temple that held our spirit.”