An Interesting History of Change
The history of cremation in the Catholic Church is interesting, and, at first glance, contradictory. Contrary to popular belief, cremation is allowed in the Catholic religion – but that legality is relatively recent – and it is certainly conditional.
“The Church earnestly recommends the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching,” says the latest Catechism update on the subject (in 1983). To be sure, this rule is a stark contrast to previous church laws that strictly prohibited cremation for centuries. But, as Father Pete Polando, pastor of St. Matthias Parrish in Youngstown, Ohio is quoted as saying on Catholic Culture website, “the Church has never been against cremation as such, but discouraged it because of the reasons people used to justify it.”
The Catholic Church’s former opposition has its roots in cremation history – specifically, it’s part in Christianity’s early battles with those of other faiths. Historians tell us that “pagans” and other non-Christians would sometimes attack Christianity’s belief in The Resurrection by gleefully tossing Christian bodies into flames and happily tossing the resulting ashes to the wind. This, of course, horrified Christians because it diminishing their hope and belief that the bodies would be resurrected intact.
In response to the attacks, early Christian leaders quickly outlawed cremation, and that tradition remained for centuries despite ever-softening attitudes toward cremation. As Christianity’s opponents gradually stopped using cremation to attack and ridicule the idea of The Resurrection, most Christian leaders came to object to cremation less and less. Eventually, scholars in the Catholic Church began professing that cremation has no effect on the potential for resurrection (because Resurrection is a spiritual, not a physical, process, they argued) and those arguments, slowly, took root. Finally, the formal ban on cremation among Catholics ended in 1963.
Even with the ban lifted, however, Catholic cremation remains conditional, and the conditions are rooted in the original objections to the practice. Catholic law now allows cremations, but only if the ashes are not to be scattered. This is in keeping with the original idea – long since abandoned formally – that a body cannot be resurrected if it is not intact. Additionally, the cremated ashes should also be interred in hallowed ground (i.e.: a cemetery), which still incorporates part of the traditional custom. In fact, many of the traditions of Catholic funerals, such as a viewing (pre-cremation), and display of the loved one in the church (pre or post-cremation), can still be used to honor the life of the departed. Biodegradable caskets are ideal for burial or cremation, and allow the body to be viewed in the wake, or even in the funeral (if it is to take place before the cremation) and religious ash vessels offer a comforting addition to a memorial service, as well as a peaceful final resting place.
In general, modern Catholic teaching has absolutely no objection to cremation, and in fact, many scholars say it is preferable to traditional burial because it actually speeds up the process by which a body returns to its eternal state – ashes. Modern Catholic leaders also cite cremation as a good moral choice because it can be more environmentally sound than a traditional burial – which could require that a large metal casket be, indestructibly, in the ground for centuries.
The Catholic stance toward cremation has certainly softened over the centuries, and, unless the Church’s critics begin another round of attacks using cremation, it seems poised to continue to softening in the coming years until, eventually, there will be no conditions on the practice.