Cremation refers to the disposal of the bodies of the dead by burning. It was a common practice among some ancient cultures and religions. Early Christians rejected cremation partly because of its association with pagan cultures but mostly because Roman authorities burned and scattered the remains of Christian martyrs trying to prove that God couldn’t reunite body and soul.
This idea was most repugnant to Christians for they had a strong hope in the resurrection of their bodies and life everlasting with and through Christ.
From where does this belief stem? The Old Testament saw the development of a belief in everlasting life and the resurrection of the body. The New Testament frequently testifies to this belief.
THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD
All the Gospels proclaim the resurrection of the dead. Luke mentions “the resurrection of the righteous” (14.14) and John speaks of “the resurrection of the last day” (11.24-25).
In the synoptic Gospels, we read that the Son of Man, coming in power and glory, will send out his angels to gather his elect from the four corners of the earth (Mark 13.26-27; Matthew 24.29-31; Luke 21.25-28).
In Matthew 22, Mark 12 and Luke 8, Jesus argues with the Sadducees, saying “they rise from the dead. . . . Have you never read what God said to you that God is the God of the living not the dead.”?
Paul is shown supporting this belief a number of times in Acts. But it is in his letters that he defends this doctrine most vehemently.
“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. . . . If Christ has not been raised then our preaching and your belief have been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God because we testified God had raised Christ to life. . . . But Christ has been raised from the dead . . . and all of us will be brought to life in Christ” (1 Corinthians 15.13-22).
The Church has constantly taught respect for the human body from the moment of conception through the life cycle and particularly after death.
Why? The bodies of our dead, while they were living persons, were washed in the holy waters of Baptism, anointed with the sacred oils of salvation and fed with the bread of Christ. They were living temples of the Holy Spirit and destined to be raised from the dead for a life of eternal glory with Christ.
In accordance with its consistent belief, the Church officially banned cremation in 1886, after the first modern crematoriums were developed in the 1870s. It continued to object to cremation because it seemed to be a denial of the resurrection of the body.
Vatican II discussed the possibility of cremation in keeping with proper respect for the body since cremation was no longer seen as an anti-Christian statement. In addition, it was becoming more acceptable in society as space for burial became limited. Also, economic and health reasons often favoured it.
Therefore, in 1963, the Roman Catholic Church began to allow it, formalizing it in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.
However, it must be noted that the Church still normally requires the body of the deceased be present for the funeral Mass and still prefers burial or entombment.
NO SCATTERING OF THE ASHES
In addition, the Church still expects that all human remains be treated with proper respect. It does not consider scattering the cremated remains or keeping them in one’s home as reverent disposition of them.
Every time we recite the Creed, we profess our faith in the resurrection of the body. Reflect on its meaning as you live by the faith of the disciples and of the early Church.
We too have been baptized in Christ and sanctified in him. We, who have continued his mission on earth particularly to the poor and needy, hope to be united one day in eternal happiness with God through, with and in Christ.