The short answer is yes; the Catholic Church permits cremation. They allow cremation, as many people believe.
Cremations were uncommon until late into the 20th century, as many Catholics believed that cremation would prevent resurrection of the body. Catholics preferred traditional burial to avoid the prospect of scattering the cremated remains and risking exposure to decomposing bodies.
Since 1973, however, the Church has permitted cremation and taught that the human body’s cremation is not a sinful act. “There are absolutely no grounds for declaring that those who choose this way of honoring their dead are in a state of mortal sin” (Catechism, paragraph 2398).
Let’s dive into the details.
Background on Roman Catholicism
Roman Catholics are members of the Christian religion who believe in the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Before we begin discussing cremation in more detail, let’s review some background details about Roman Catholics and Christian teaching in general.
What Is The Roman Catholic View Of Life And Death?
Roman Catholics believe in the resurrection of human bodies after death and before judgment day. They also believe that Christ’s body was resurrected after his death on the cross and that all Christians will be resurrected to eternal life.
This belief is a vital part of what makes Roman Catholicism different from Eastern Orthodox Christianity in this respect. For example, members of the Eastern Orthodox Church believe that at baptism, we are given new bodies which can never die or decay again (as opposed to the traditional Catholic belief that we are given new bodies at the end of time).
Cremation Of The Human Body Is Not A Sinful Act
In 1973, Pope Paul VI’s declaration on cremation lifted any restriction in Roman Catholicism from earlier burial instructions published. Catholic teaching now permits its use and regards it as a pious custom, similar to other traditional funeral rites. that confers the same respect on the deceased as does traditional burial.
This does not mean that all Catholics agree with cremation. A 2015 Pew Research Poll found that about half of all Catholics favor cremation over burial, while the other half prefer traditional burial.
The critical point is that the Catholic Church does not forbid cremation practices in any way, nor are there strict guidelines or Vatican Rules on how to handle cremated remains. The Catholic religion permits cremation as a reverent disposition of a human person or her soul.
What Is Canon Law?
The Catholic Church has a set of laws called the “Canon law.” The church can change its teachings, but not the Canon law. Cremation does not violate any Roman Catholic doctrine. There are no grounds for declaring that those who choose cremation over burial (or traditional funeral) are in mortal sin by doing so.
Is There Any Opposition To Cremating Cathoics?
Some Christians have opposed cremation in recent years because they think ashes scattered or buried might make people less inclined to believe that their human body will be resurrected. Most theologians now consider this argument obsolete, as evidenced by the 1983 Instruction on Resuscitation from Cardiac Death.
Catholic Cremation Has Grown In Popularity
There has been an uptick in cremations by Catholics in recent years. 62% of Americans have pre-purchased burial plots, but only 41% end up using them. The percentage is even higher among younger generations: 89% say they want to be cremated when they die, and just 11% say they prefer burial.
This is primarily due to the increasing affordability (in both time and money) of cremation compared to a traditional funeral. Funerals these days can cost upwards of $10,000 once you add up the burial plot costs, the (rental) casket or coffin, memorial plaque, funeral home reservation, and the embalming of the dead body, among many others. And the percentage of people with that much cash to spare is understandably small.
What Does The Bible Say About Cremation?
Christian doctrine (the Bible) does not explicitly mention cremation, but it does speak about treating the dead.
Deuteronomy 21:22-23 says that if a person is executed on God’s command, then “you shall surely bury him in your field; you shall not cover his corpse with a stone.”
Leviticus 19:28 asks people to be respectful of their loved ones before death and after death by being careful not to touch or do anything indecent around them and burning any clothing which has touched the deceased body as well as burying it. The same law applies when there are animal carcasses involved (see verses 29-31). This may indicate an early Jewish acceptance of cremation among those who didn’t have access to land to bury the dead.
In addition, there are a few other biblical examples of people being cremated:
Abraham and Sarah were buried together with their possessions (Genesis 23)
Eliezer is said to have taken his father’s bones “and burned them upon the great pyre,” an act that was likely done in Ur where burning bodies had been customary for centuries before Judaism arrived on the scene as it would’ve made little sense if they weren’t already accustomed to cremation. Finally, King Josiah removed all traces of idolatry from Jerusalem by purging paganism, including destroying houses that contained altars built for worshiping Baal (see II Kings 23). And while he didn’t mention anything about cremations specifically, he would likely have had them too.
Do Catholics Believe In Cremation?
Repeatedly over the years, the Church has clarified its position on cremation. As long as cremation is preceded by a funeral mass that honors the deceased, the Church affirms it confers the same respect as a traditional burial.
However, the church requires that the cremated remains of the human person not be handled by family members. The Church also does not want the cremated remains present in day-to-day life for individuals to interact with (as would be the case with funeral jewelry).
Strict Guidelines on Cremated Remains
No. The Catholic Church forbids the indiscriminate scattering of cremated remains or keeping ashes present in your home. The Church earnestly recommends that cremated remains be given a final resting place, just like the physical body in burial. Instead, it recommends depositing them with respect (for example, in an urn garden or columbarium). Importantly, note also that family members cannot handle the cremated ashes after death.
The Catholic Church also teaches that burying the cremated remains of a loved one in the family burial plot is not only permitted but encouraged. If there’s no room left in the family gravesite, then an urn can be placed on or near it to honor those resting there and create new memories for future generations.
As far as the Bible itself, there are no restrictions regarding scattering ashes after cremation, as long as it’s done respectfully and not on holy ground (e.g., church property). This also applies if you’d like your loved ones’ ashes buried alongside yours (usually allowed) or have them implanted into the tree of life, which is often available through funeral homes for those who want both burial and cremary options.”
Additional FAQs About Catholic Funeral Rites
What Is A Catholic Cemetery?
Catholic cemeteries are designed for those who practice the Catholic faith, not all people. They may be owned or operated by a parish, and they will have restrictions on who can be buried there partly because of the cost to maintain them.
What Is A Funeral Liturgy?
A funeral liturgy is a ceremony in which the Church honors and commemorates someone who has died. This includes praying for them, praising their lives, and remembering all they have done (positively or negatively). The Church also recognizes that it’s essential to allow people to mourn before starting afresh after death.
What Is A Catholic Funeral Mass Like?
Funeral services in the Catholic Church begin when someone dies; it continues until the final rites are complete.
Christian funerals are a celebration of the person’s life and faith. It includes praying for them, praising their lives, remembering all they have done (positively or negatively), and giving thanks to God for this time on earth that has come to an end. The Mass is not about telling people how to grieve but honoring the deceased with dignity while also acknowledging that death can be painful.
It will be interesting to see if the younger generation of Catholics prefers cremation over burial as a method of final disposition. Who knows, in a few decades, burial may be rare with cemeteries seen as a relic of the past.