Can Catholics be cremated and Can the ashes be kept in urns or scattered?

At one time, cremation was not permitted for many reasons.

First, pagans often cremated their dead, so for Christians to bury the dead in sacred ground was a firm statement of belief in resurrection of the dead and the afterlife.

Second, the remains of the dead were often not buried. Sometimes they would be used as amulets or kept in homes. The old Code of Canon Law of 1917 forbade the practice of cremation as recently as 1963. In 1963, a concession was provided in limited circumstance as long as the Christian did not deny the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul.

With the scarcity of cemetery space in certain parts of the world, the Church over the years has allowed cremation. However, once the body is cremated, it must be interred in sacred ground, either in a Catholic cemetery or in a non-sectarian one, in which the grave is blessed by a deacon or priest. Cremated remains cannot be kept in urns or other containers around the home.

In 1997, the Catholic Church allowed cremated remains to be brought into the Church for the Mass of Christian burial. Before this date, the body had to come to the church first for the funeral Mass, and then sent to the crematorium. Later, the remains would have to be interred.

Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. The Church clearly prefers that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the Christian values regarding the resurrection of the body and the dignity of the human body which, through baptism, was a Temple of the Holy Trinity when it was alive.

Cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body. Selecting a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, carrying them in a respectful manner, and paying great care and attention to the appropriate placement, transport, and final disposition are all required from the living. The practice of scattering remains in the ocean or some other location from the air or ground is never permitted. Whenever possible, appropriate means for memorializing the deceased should be employed, such as with a plaque or a stone that records the name of the deceased.

Cremated remains of a body of a deceased person is permitted in the United States in the following instances according to Canon 1176, paragraph 3: “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.”

Second, each diocesan bishop will judge whether it is pastorally appropriate to celebrate the liturgy for the dead, with or without Mass, with the ashes present, taking into account the concrete circumstances in each individual case.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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