Since 1984, when an indult was granted by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Canadian Church does allow the cremated remains of a person to be present at the funeral.
The full funeral liturgy including the Mass may be celebrated with the cremated remains present. The Church in the U.S. has received permission to do the same just recently. However, in both countries, it is the bishop who makes the final decision whether this will be allowed in his diocese.
But let's take a step back and look at the mind of the Church on this whole issue. The Church followed the Jewish custom of burial of the dead, treating the body with the greatest of respect and honour. Cremation was outlawed in 769 by the Roman Emperor.
In the latter part of the 19th century, cremation began to be re-introduced. The Church, suspecting that the motives were anti-Christian, in 1886 forbade Catholics to be cremated and denied Christian burial to anyone who was cremated. That is the rule many of us knew.
In 1963, the Church lifted this prohibition, realization that many who promoted cremation were not anti-Christian. Therefore, Catholics may choose cremation unless it be to deny the existence of life after death or the resurrection of the body or some such reason.
The Church continued, however, to require the body to be present at the funeral and still prefers that it be so. Why?
The Church has always shown great respect for the body of the deceased. It is considered sacred because it has been the temple of the Holy Spirit and shared in the bread of life, the Eucharistic food of Jesus himself.
This reverence can be shown most properly and seen most clearly in the presence of the body through the full funeral rites which have been part of a long tradition. However, in a slightly adapted version, these rites can now be performed in the presence of remains rather than the body, except that the pall is not used.
From the vigil where the community gathers to listen to Scripture and to pray for the deceased to the funeral (the Mass or the liturgy of the Word) to the committal of the body, laid in its final resting place, perferably in an earth grave or tomb in memory of Jesus being placed in the tomb, the ritual moves the mourners through a process.
It is designed to bring the whole Church on this journey beyond death to a new life in God.
The Catholic funeral liturgy grew out of the experience of Christians through the centuries providing a context of faith in which to begin the process of coping and adapting to a new life situation after their loss.
The symbols of the Catholic funeral rite are intended to be messages of hope. Holy water, incense, lighting of the Easter candle and the white pall draped over the casket are reminders of the Baptism of the person and of the promise of new life in Christ. They don't deny death but they show that it is part of a greater reality.
For Christians, the interval between death and burial is a time when death and eternal life coincide, when faith becomes entwined with suffering. It is a time of special need when the human psyche seeks solace in the religious-cultural customs of grief and consolation.
It is a vital part of the duty of every Christian to participate in the ministry of consolation: care for the dying, pray for the dead, comfort those who mourn and to make sure that mourners are not abandoned after the funeral liturgy.
We are baptized in Christ and as one family in Christ, we need to care for our sisters and brothers.
The celebration of a Christian funeral liturgy is for the living. It is a part of the grieving and healing process. It brings hope and consolation. It gives family and friends a way of remembering and of saying good-bye. It allows the whole Christian community to enter into the pain and hope of those who have suffered the loss of a loved one.
It is a time to celebrate and thank God for the life and gifts of the deceased person and our own. It brings us face to face with our own frail humanity, with God's mercy and the need to turn to God in times of crisis.
Therefore, it becomes truly an act of faith in and worship of the loving God in whose image we are created and whose dwelling place is our hearts and our lives.