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When I die, do not cremate me!

The Church doesn’t approve of cremation; it permits it. Yet, similar to the Church’s teaching on sexuality that so many view as rigid and uncompromising, the harder road is more beautiful, more human, and more glorious.

(Image: Michael Bourgault | Unsplash.com)

There’s something inexplicably profound about the dead, buried body, even as it decays to bones and dust. It reminds man of his morality, while suggesting, via the tension of a corpse that looks and feels like a loved one — but is no longer fully our loved one — something transcendent about the human condition. In the graveyard scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the gravediggers jest over the bones of the deceased until Hamlet appears, and looking at one skull, famously laments, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio…” After Christ’s death, women weep over His soulless body and seek to honor it with spices and fresh linens.

Ever since, Christians have honored the dead bodies of their saints. We should honor our dead bodies, too.

Christians have good reasons for such practices, as Scott Hahn and Emily Stimpson Chapman note in their recently published Hope to Die: The Christian Meaning of Death and the Resurrection of the Body. Most essentially, man is made in the image of God precisely by being an intellective soul and body — not simply a body with a sensitive soul, like the other animals, nor pure, immaterial soul, like the angels. And, as Genesis 1:31 tells us, this flesh-soul being was good, something sin could taint, but not erase.

The Incarnation validated and elevated the goodness of the body. The Word took on flesh through the pure vessel of Mary. As early Christians declared in their rebuke of the anti-materialist Gnostics, how could the flesh be evil, when God deigned to take it upon Himself? Through the Incarnation, God made possible that human flesh be united to divinity, both through Christ Himself, but also, by extension, by us being united to Christ.

When Jesus died and rose from the dead, he appeared not as a bodiless apparition, but as a glorified man. “Put your finger here,” Jesus says to Thomas when he appears to Him. “…See my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27). Jesus conquers death in the body. The earliest Christians took this message to heart, recognizing their own eternal destiny wrapped up in that same reality. St. John declares: “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). St. Paul asserts: “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:49).

The sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, are the means of experiencing this union to Christ’s resurrected body. Indeed, as the priest declares in the epiclesis, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. There we commune with Christ not only spiritually, but with his mystical body. Hahn explains: “transubstantiation, in effect, is a kind of nuclear fusion. It sets into motion a process that will create something entirely new: a new us.” Pace forms of Christian teaching and spirituality that over-spiritualize heaven at the expense of its physicality, when our bodies are resurrected on the last day, they will be united to Christ’s, like Christ’s.

This conception of the human body was in remarkable conflict with those of the ancient world. Pagans sought to gratify their bodily urges in the most gluttonous, lustful ways, but that was because they didn’t think their bodies mattered. The human body possessed a youthful, ephemeral perfection, and after that beauty faded—and especially after death—its putrid, disgusting decay was to be kept at a safe social distance. This is why so many pagan peoples burned their dead bodies. One can imagine funeral participants thinking, as they watched the corpse turn to ash “you won’t be needing that where you’re going!”

The Christian “obsession” with dead bodies struck many ancient peoples, and certainly the Romans, as bizarre and disgusting. The Christians honor their dead, visit their graves, keep their bones, and even venerate and kiss them! Yet such religious devotions stemmed directly from the Christian understanding of the resurrection, which communicated such a high regard for the human body, even the dead body, which would someday rise and be made anew. Sometimes it took a lot to convince converted pagan to abandon their funeral pyres; Charlemagne, the converted first Holy Roman Emperor, made cremation a capital offense!

Yet, as Hahn notes, after Charlemagne’s empire, “no other European country or power explicitly banned or permitted cremation. They didn’t need to. Nobody wanted to be cremated.” So Christendom stood for a millennia. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that various groups—“French radicals and Italian freemason, German Socialists, and Russian Bolseviks, English doctors and American civil engineers”—began reviving interest in cremation. Many of these cremation advocates were atheists and explicitly anti-Christian. As historian Thomas Laqueur explains: “Cremation was meant to strike a blow at a millennium-old community of the dead buried in sacred ground and to offer a historically based alternative.”

Some argued for cremation on public sanitation grounds. Corpses, they argued, polluted water supplies and released poisonous gases into the air. Later, in the twentieth century, they employed ecological arguments—that the earth didn’t have sufficient space to host humanity’s dead. Burying the dead also increasingly became expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. Finally, globalization encourages the spread of cremation, as other religious traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism) typically burn their dead. The effect of these forces is startling: in 1905, 99.9 percent of Brits were buried. In 2017, about 77 percent were cremated.

The Church’s perspective on cremation has always been a begrudging permission. Marcus Minucius Felix, a third century Christian apologist, wrote: “We do not fear loss from cremation even though we adopt the ancient and better custom of burial.” Pope Boniface in 1300 in turn reaffirmed that cremation was for witches and heretics, not faithful Christians. This was enshrined as the discipline of the Church in the 1886 Catholic Code of Canon Law, which reads: “The bodies of the faithful must be buried, their cremation is forbidden.” The 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia explained that cremation was a “public profession of irreligion and materialism.”

None of this, however, amounted to a formal doctrinal censuring of cremation. Which is why Pope Paul VI could legitimately lift the cremation ban in his 1963 Piam et Constantem. As Hahn explains, the apostolic instruction was a compromise to increasing numbers of Christians who requested the Church allow cremation “for reasons of health, economics, or other reasons involving private or public order.” Even here, however, burial remained normative, the instruction reading: “all necessary measures must be taken to preserve the practice of reverently buring the faithful departed.” Only “when forced to do so by necessity” should Christians do otherwise.

Further Church documents have reiterated Paul VI’s begrudging allowance of cremation. The 1983 revised Code of Canon Law explains that “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained,” even if “it does not however forbid cremation.” Hahn cites Catholic writer Patricia Snow, who observes that the Church “urges, strongly prefers, and earnestly recommends that Catholics continue the reverent and unbroken (piam et constantem) practice of burying the bodies of the faithful dead.” Indeed, after Snow wrote this, the Vatican in 2016 issued another document “insistently” recommending burial as “above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.”

The Church doesn’t approve of cremation; it permits it. Yet, similar to the Church’s teaching on sexuality that so many view as rigid and uncompromising, the harder road is more beautiful, more human, and more glorious. Christian burial preaches the resurrection, the transformation and glorification of the human body. Says Hahn:

Cremation teaches people lessons about the body that are directly contrary to what the Church actually believes. It teaches that the body is disposable. It teaches that the body is not an integral part of the human person. And it teaches that the body has no value once the soul is gone — that body has run its course, and there will be nothing more for it. No resurrection. No transformation. No glorification.

Yes, devout Catholics can, in good conscience, be cremated. Perhaps in some cases this is prudent or necessary. But I’m with Hahn. When I die, I want my death to be a flagrant message affirming the everlasting, bodily life Christ has purchased for all of us. As the hymn says:

Up from the grave He arose
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes
He arose a Victor from the dark domain
And He lives forever with His saints to reign


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About Casey Chalk 5 Articles
Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.

21 Comments

  1. You state… “The Church doesn’t approve of cremation; it permits it.” Webster says… “As nouns the difference between permit and approval is that permit is (obsolete) formal permission or permit can be a pompano of the species while approval is an expression granting permission; an indication of agreement with a proposal; an acknowledgement that a person, thing or event meets requirements”.

    We Catholics are confused enough. Because of the coronavirus and the rate of financial decline, many families do not have the funds to spend for an obsolete form of interment… currently around $10,000, not to mention that we are running out of cemetery space. A cremation, services and urn is less than $1,500. A difference of $8,500. Since Mother Earth is finite and unchecked human reproduction is infinite. I was told that with the exhausting number of burials exceed cemetery grave sited are shared by vertical burial. If our already threatened, estimated to be .07% potable water supply is somehow contaminated by cemetery leaching, ecological concerns are a major issue. I believe the “conflict” between dogma and reality may be judged by our all forgiving savior concluding that the destruction of all of his natural creation, a fragile Earth, will show a much greater sinful consequence.

    • “I believe the “conflict” between dogma and reality…”

      There is no conflict between reality and authentic dogma. That’s Catholicism 101. Seriously.

      • Here is our reason to be cremated. We will be living near our children. It is 500 miles away from the Catholic cemetery where me parents and grandparents are buried. The graveyard and Church grounds were given to the parish by my great grandparents. I feel a special affinity to it. We don’t want our children to have to transport coffins that long distance. Why are Catholic Churches and cemeteries building places for cremations if it is frowned upon?

        • You want to make your children have to travel 500 miles to visit your graves, just so you can be buried with your parents? What strange priorities.

          • PeterK,
            Perhaps you misunderstood those comments above?
            I think it’s a sad outcome of our mobile society that family members are buried in so many far flung locations. Even if you choose a gravesite close to your children, there’s a good possibility that they may relocate for employment later on anyway.
            I like the old fashioned idea of family cemeteries and close community ties but we just have to do the best we can these days.

      • I don’t know who you are, but I never passed Catholic 101. You compete with semantics of one fraze and not the major issues. That absence of humility speaks volumes. My early exposure and contribution to Catholicism would stir your ideological stripe..

        Don’t attack everyone who differs with your apparent ignorance of REALITY!

        • “I don’t know who you are,…”

          I’m the Editor of Catholic World Report and the author of hundreds of articles, reviews, and interviews on this site. And quite a few others for other outlets. And a few books. And so forth: https://www.carleolson.net/bio

          “…but I never passed Catholic 101.”

          I figured that out quite a while ago.

          “Don’t attack everyone who differs with your apparent ignorance of REALITY!”

          Pointing out that reality and authentic dogma is not a matter of my opinion vs. your opinion. Nor is it ideological. I suggest you read CCC 88-90. Or see my essay titled “Dogma is Not a Dirty Word”, penned twenty years ago.

          Painting me as an ideologue, or insisting I lack humility, or implying that don’t actually engage with issues might make you feel better. But all it really does is expose the many holes in your one-trick pony show.

          • Donnybrooks by Catholic editors should be a mortal sin. Your retort displays an arrogance, as a Caligula editor your position of an omniscient empirical status which arguably, should be monitored by your superiors seems unchecked. I really lost my breathe when you expounded on your credentials. I almost genuflected, but my knees… This website has a penchant for not maintaining the founding father’s edict of the separation of church and state. Yours, and the hierarchy’s compartmentalized support of republicans proves startling. My GOP congress has submitted to being morphed into the DJT party. OOps, wrong subject, but we are the lone voices crying in the desert with no where to go. Peace to you.

          • “Donnybrooks by Catholic editors should be a mortal sin.”

            I am startled to learn that you recognize the concept of mortal sin.

            “Your retort displays an arrogance, as a Caligula editor your position of an omniscient empirical status”

            I am tolerably certain that you mean “imperial.” “Empirical” means “originating in or based on observation or experience.” And what exactly does Caligula have to do with anything? Also, Mr. Olson doesn’t seem arrogant to me, nor, probably, to any rational beings.

            “I really lost my breathe when you expounded on your credentials.”

            You’re the one who said you didn’t know who he is, which is rather difficult to believe considering that you’ve been hanging around CWR for quite some time. He was responding to your implicit question.

            “This website has a penchant for not maintaining the founding father’s edict of the separation of church and state.”

            The Founding Fathers did not make an edict of the separation of church and state. It’s not in the Constitution. What is in the Constitution is that the government is not allowed to meddle in the free practice of religion. The phrase “separation between church and state” is from a private letter written by Thomas Jefferson. It was not an edict. Even a quick Wikipedia search would have given you that information:

            “In English, the exact term is an offshoot of the phrase, ‘wall of separation between church and state’, as written in Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. In that letter, referencing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Jefferson writes:

            “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.[20]

            “Jefferson was describing to the Baptists that the United States Bill of Rights prevents the establishment of a national church, and in so doing they did not have to fear government interference in their right to expressions of religious conscience. The Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791 as ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States, was one of the earliest political expressions of religious freedom. Others were the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, also authored by Jefferson and adopted by Virginia in 1786; and the French Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen of 1789.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separation_of_church_and_state#Jefferson_and_the_Bill_of_Rights

            “Yours, and the hierarchy’s compartmentalized support of republicans proves startling.”

            There are, unfortunately, not a few members of the hierarchy who support Democrats, the party which glorifies abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and the pretence that a male can become a female and vice versa, among other things. You strain out a Republican gnat and swallow a Democratic camel.

            “My GOP congress has submitted to being morphed into the DJT party.”

            Mmmmm, yes; DJT, who has kept his word in defending life and in defending freedom of religion (or do you think that the Little Sisters of the Poor should be forced to fund sinful behavior?), among other things.

            “OOps, wrong subject, but we are the lone voices crying in the desert with no where to go.”

            We, who? And what exactly are you crying out in that metaphorical desert?

    • Good morning Morgan! I hope this finds you well.
      I certainly hear you regarding the costs of burials. It can be ridiculous. There are ways to save money though and still be respectful to deceased loved ones.
      Funeral home directors are putting themselves in harm’s way currently with the virus outbreak. God bless them.
      Funeral homes provide an essential service to their communities but at the end of the day it’s a business. There are a lot of add ons that run funeral costs up and a decent funeral home will work with you to economize. But you have to ask first.

  2. ” Yet let no one imagine that the Christian dreads the destruction of the body by fire as an impediment to its future resurrection, for God can effect the reintegration of the body after it has been dissolved into gaseous elements”
    (Spirago, The Catechism Explained, 1899)

    While it is understandable why burial is preferable in the eyes of the Church, in many localities the cost is prohibitive. This is especially the case here in Africa were many families go into debt and bankrupt themselves to pay for the lavish funerals and burials of loved ones, as well as ornate gravestones, when it would be more prudent to opt for cremation, internment in a memorial wall, and spend their sparse resources on the living.

  3. There’s a host of things that can go wrong in cremations. I’ve known more than one person whose cremated remains are still stored in the back of a closet or rented storage unit.
    With cremation there’s just no urgency to do the right thing. It can get put off indefinitely.

  4. My understanding of the current embalming process is the blood is drained and dumped, replaced with formaldehyde, the lips and eyes are sewn shut, make-up, etc. This does not sound very respectful of the body to me.
    .
    I’d much rather be placed as-is directly in the ground–from dust to dust. For all its problem, cremation does not seem as bad as the standard funeral process.
    .
    My husband and I tend to 8 grave sites in three different graveyards every Memorial Day weekend. It does not bother me, but I am not sure the children will be able to do likewise. The thought of eternity in the diocesan’s new, utilitarian graveyard stack-n-pack mausoleum is very depressing.

  5. I am quite certain that on the last day, all will appear quite the same regardless of the manner of the condition of their remains and how they got there. There are a number of challenges to the Church today we should be concerned with but I am hard pressed to find a reason for this to be among them.

  6. Two points about cremation that for some reason are rarely mentioned. 1) Cremation is not just a burning. A machine is needed to crush the bones of the deceased. 2) The bones of a person in the Biblical understanding contain the essence of the person’s spirituality. The crushing of the bones upon a person’s death is completely contrary to the sacredness of the person, which is why the bones of a saint are the most desired relic, why the bones of Jesus were not broken at His death, and so on.

  7. Kathryn:
    “I’d much rather be placed as-is directly in the ground–from dust to dust. For all its problem, cremation does not seem as bad as the standard funeral process.”
    **********

    Me too, Kathryn.
    That’s the option I chose when my husband died. Regulations vary & some situations involving transporting bodies long distances could make a difference but people should check into what burial options are available in their area before it becomes a necessity.
    Funeral homes should have access to plain wooden coffins that are economical. I chose one intended for orthodox Jews. It was simple, dignified & economical. I’d rather spend the extra money on a lasting gravestone that will be seen by my grandchildren & their children.
    Yup, most of the mausoleums I see are pretty dreadful. I like old school cemeteries better.

  8. PS-I should have clarified that I prefer a simple Christian burial minus embalming. Not cremation. But I understand there’s a reason for exceptions.

    • A lady at our parish works in the diocesan office that handles burials and cemeteries, and she said that the modern embalming method, etc, is required. I may be cremated, however. No simple, ecologically correct burial is allowed (Laudato Si, anyone!?!)
      .
      One older diocesan cemetery is pretty nice looking, but the one for our town is new, modern, and ugly. The public cemetery is better looking than the old diocesan one: old, creepy, beautiful and Holloween-ready all at once. It’s perfect, but also nearly full. There is a very lovely private, non-denominational cemetery a family friend and his parents are buried in outside of town. I do not think they allow the simple hole in the ground I want, though.
      .

  9. Our family can barely afford cremation let alone burial. I have a cremation niche for when it is my time, but I do ask God to help me to somehow be able to have a burial instead if that is what He prefers. I’m getting older and could be homeless at anytime due to inability to work as my last relative that can help owns nothing and we live on her Social Security…no savings. So, I don’t see how I would be able to be buried. I would prefer a green burial, so that saves some, but when you have nothing and no one to help, what can you do? It’s sad. Our family used to have money, but it’s long since gone. I pray something changes and that first, I don’t end up a woman alone on the street, and second, that I can be buried instead of cremated.

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