Cremation of human remains was prohibited by Catholic authorities for much of the history of the Church. Today, it is not only allowed, but growing in popularity among the faithful, according to Monica Williams, Director of Cemeteries for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Nearly a third of Catholic families in the archdiocese opt for cremation, she said, as more people come to accept it.
“It takes time for family traditions to change,” Williams said. “More people are choosing cremation as an alternative.”
While full-body burial remains the Church’s preferred choice, there are practical reasons for cremation. Cost is one; cremation can shave thousands off the $6,000-8,000 cost of burial. Another is that families can inter cremated remains in family plots, which have limited space. Some argue it is a more ecologically-friendly choice, Williams said, as less open space and materials are required for cremation.
Church permits cremation
Cremation is the process of reducing a body to bone fragments through the application of intense heat. The bone fragments are then pulverized, placed in a container and returned to the family. Regarding its morality, the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes a single sentence to cremation: “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (no. 2301).
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, while noting that cremation is permitted, stresses that the Church holds a preference for full-body burial. The USCCB explained, “The Church’s reverence and care for the body grows out of a reverence and concern for the person whom the Church now commends to the care of God.… The human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it is hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body.”
Church authorities banned the practice of cremation centuries ago to counter the ancient Roman practice of cremating the body as a rejection of the existence of an afterlife. Scripture teaches that man is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and therefore the body must be respected in both this life and the next. The body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and therefore, must be treated with respect.
While cremation was common in the ancient world, by the fifth century it had been largely abandoned in the Roman Empire due to Christian influence. Today more than a third of Americans opt for cremation; some nations, like Japan, have a nearly 100 percent cremation rate.
In 1963, the Vatican lifted the cremation ban. Since 1997, cremated remains have been allowed to be present at funeral Masses, and are given the same respect as remains in a casket. Cremated remains must be buried, just like a body, in a cemetery, crypt, or other appropriate burial place. Scattering ashes or keeping them at home is not permitted.
As more residents of the Archdiocese of San Francisco opt for cremation, it has had one effect on the six archdiocesan cemeteries with open space: it has slowed down the rate at which they are filling up. The 300 acres of Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma—the Archdiocese’s oldest and largest cemetery—are less than half full and now can accept remains for another 300 years, Williams estimates. Holy Cross is celebrating the 125th anniversary of its opening, and is the final resting place for about 400,000 individuals, including many of the Bay Area’s most prominent citizens, such as baseball legend Joe DiMaggio.
St. Dominic’s columbarium
The San Francisco archdiocese’s cemeteries are not the only sites approved for internment of cremated remains. Historic St. Dominic’s Church recently built a columbarium, a facility used for internment of urns with cremated remains. It is the only Catholic church in the city of San Francisco to house a columbarium. Three hundred twenty niches were built, enough for the remains of 640 people. It is located near the altar area.
The columbarium was the idea of parishioners, who approached the pastor, Father Xavier Lavagetto, according to parishioner and volunteer Judie Doherty. One of the driving factors behind the building of the columbarium was that many parishioners, including Doherty, had the cremated remains of relatives at home. Many of these parishioners are elderly, she said, unable to make regular trips to Holy Cross or other cemeteries.
In Doherty’s case, she was keeping the remains of her mother, who died four years ago. “I love her, and I wanted her near me,” Doherty said.
She was initially unaware of the Church’s prohibition against keeping cremated remains at home, but, in time, the wisdom of the Church’s position dawned on her. “When I die, what happens to the remains of my mother?” she reflected.
Doherty did much of the initial research for the St. Dominic’s columbarium, and remains an active volunteer in the project. About 100 people have purchased spaces, she said, which range in cost from $4,000-$15,000. “Many people in the parish are grateful for the opportunity to keep the remains of their loved ones in their home parish,” she said.
The Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, has much more rural space than San Francisco, and the situation for burials is far different. It only has three diocesan cemeteries, and 120 parish cemeteries. Some parishes have columbaria as well. Five years ago, Madison’s Bishop Robert Morlino commissioned a study assessing the management of the diocese’s places of burial. Grant Emmel, who is involved with special projects for the diocese, oversaw the study. The issue of cremation came up during the assessment.
“For us, it is a catechetical moment,” Emmel said. “What does our faith teach? At the end of the world, the dead will rise and our cemeteries will be emptied. Our Lord is coming back for our bodies and will return them to us.”
The diocese wanted to teach parishioners about the dignity of the body—which includes the proper laying of the body to rest—and the broader teaching of the Resurrection. “We live in a secular world that is cost-conscious,” Emmel said. “Many people don’t look at cremation as the proper way to care for the body after death, but as merely an economic decision.”
He noted that in areas where the Catholic faith is stronger, cremation is chosen less frequently. Depending on the region of Madison, cremations make up 20 to 40 percent of all burials.
However, Emmel noted, there are also Catholics who have their loved ones cremated but do not bring them to cemeteries for burial. As in other dioceses, Madison is concerned with what Catholics are doing with these cremated remains. “People bring grandma’s remains home in an urn and keep them on a coffee table. That’s not right,” Emmel said. “If you had a full-body burial, would you bring grandma home in a casket and keep it in your living room? Both are human remains, and should be laid to rest properly.”
Cemeteries are hallowed ground, where individuals are fittingly memorialized. They are also places families can go to remember and pray for those they love. “Cemeteries should be important to us because members of our families are there,” Emmel said. “Their care, and the properly laying to rest of our deceased, whether full body or cremated remains, should be important to us.”
Bishop Morlino stressed, “We care for the body as heaven-bound. The body, which is corruptible, is going to put on incorruptibility…and immortality, and will be glorified.”
The bishop said that the body’s destiny is heaven, not the grave. “We’re not disposing of the body in the grave…we’re allowing it to rest in order to have it raised up,” he said. “God has further use of that body. It is not a throw-away.”
The Church’s belief in the Resurrection is why it forbids such practices as scattering human remains, which Bishop Morlino described as “trying to do something poetic with them to make someone feel good.” He continued, “God has a place [for the body] in heaven. … It is especially important to remind people of this in November, the month of the Holy Souls.”
Follow our Catholic traditions
The Diocese of Phoenix has six cemeteries and one mortuary. It has 1,800 burials annually, and about 350 funerals. Nearly 40 percent opt for cremation, due to the lower cost, changing attitudes about cremation, and the ease of transporting remains. None of Phoenix’s parishes has a columbarium.
The increasing demand for cremation has posed some financial challenges to the diocese. Much of its cemetery land was purchased decades ago before cremation was widespread; today, less of the land is needed and lower revenues are coming in to main the cemeteries, reported Gary Brown, the diocese’s executive director of cemeteries and mortuaries.
Additionally, as in San Francisco and Madison, many in Phoenix take remains home, or scatter or divide them up.
Brown recalled a recent “gift” to Catholic Charities of the diocese. Someone donated an urn with human remains, saying he no longer wanted to keep them at his house. Brown saw to it that they were properly interred. “This type of thing happens too often,” he said. “We’re trying to reach out to people in an effort to prevent this behavior.”
The diocese recently released new guidelines on cremation for parishioners. “Bishop Thomas Olmsted [the Ordinary of the Phoenix diocese] has made it clear how human remains should be handled,” Brown said. “It’s important to him that we follow our Catholic traditions.”
Brown agrees with Emmel on another benefit of using Catholic cemeteries: “Having a place to visit is important to families when they’ve lost someone.”
The Archdiocese of Atlanta does not operate cemeteries of its own; Catholics bury their deceased in private cemeteries with Catholic sections. The Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta originally encompassed the entire state of Georgia, and Atlanta became its own diocese in 1956. The population of the archdiocese has grown rapidly in recent years, and increasing land costs prevented the archdiocese from purchasing significant acreage for cemeteries near its population centers (the nearest Catholic cemetery may be a two-to-three-hour drive from these centers).
In an effort to serve the Catholic population’s needs, several parishes have built columbaria and memorial gardens for cremated remains. Such sites must be built with approval of the archbishop; the chief concern being if a parish with a columbarium were to close, the remains of the deceased would have to be relocated.
Deacon Ray Egan, who oversees issues related to burials and cemeteries for the archdiocese, noted that while traditional burial of the deceased is still the preferred choice among Atlanta Catholics, the number of cremations is “creeping up” to around 20 percent.
As cremation grows in popularly, Deacon Egan echoed the concerns of other dioceses. “We also want people to understand that they should give the same respect to cremated remains as they would to a body,” he said.