When a loved one dies, there are numerous details and options which face the family members responsible for making funeral arrangements. Until rather recently, cremation was not an option considered by Roman Catholics. Most Catholics have a visceral, if often inarticulate, antipathy toward the practice of cremation. There may, in fact, be good reasons for such sentiment. However, in the past forty years or so, theological reflection on the practice of cremation has developed somewhat, and this is reflected in more recent teaching and Church legislation. To understand how this practice, which at one time was strictly forbidden except in rare circumstances, is now generally permissible, one should understand a little of the historical background regarding Catholicism's opposition to cremation.
Yet before explaining the history of Catholic thinking on cremation, it is first imperative to understand the distinction between two realities in Catholic life: doctrine (sometimes called official teaching) and practice (sometimes called discipline). While doctrines do develop—that is, in the course of history particular official teachings are articulated more clearly or nuanced as the Church comes to understand more fully the meaning of Christian revelation—they do not, in the strict sense of the term, change. While doctrines such as Jesus' humanity and divinity, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and Immaculate Conception of Mary, Mother of God, may be (and, in fact, in the past have been) refined and expressed more effectively in a particular culture or more clearly at a particular time, they do not, in substance, change. The same is not always true of practices, which can be (and have been) changed by competent authority within the Church. The renewal of the Mass after the Second Vatican Council is probably the most familiar example of the Church's practice being modified and changed (and arguably with much benefit). Further, in some cultures and at some times (for example, following the Council of Nicea in AD 325) during the Church's history, standing (rather than kneeling) was considered the appropriate posture of reverence during the Eucharistic prayer. Female altar servers and reception of communion on the tongue or in the hand are two other examples of practices which have, in the course of Catholic history, been changed legitimately. This being said, it is important to understand cremation as a matter of practice or discipline, rather than primarily as one of doctrine.
The earliest Christians inherited from their Jewish forebears the Semitic custom of inhumation or burial of the dead. The best known example of this practice is the Roman Catacombs, filled with the graves of the deceased martyrs and believers. Until the time of the Emperor Trajan (AD 98‑117), it was the practice of the ancient Greeks and Romans to cremate their dead. Perhaps as a means of further distinguishing themselves from Greco‑Roman culture, or perhaps from a theological motivation (or probably a combination of both), the early Christians rejected cremation. Central to Christian faith is the notion of the resurrection of the dead, i.e., the reunification of soul and glorified body at the Second Coming. The body, though bereft of the soul, was still considered, in a sense, sacred. Belief in the Incarnation prompted Tertullian (d. ca. AD 220) to pun that the body (caro) was the "hinge" (cardo) of salvation. The early Christians looked with horror on the practice of cremation as repugnant to the notions of Incarnation and Resurrection. In fact, the bodies of the martyrs were, at times, cremated by the civil authorities as a way of demeaning Christian belief in the resurrection.
Because cremation seemed an affront to the Christian faith's emphases on Christ's Incarnation and bodily resurrection, cremation was generally considered unacceptable to Catholics, except in rare instances where public health and safety were undermined by plague or disease. For nearly two millennia, in Europe and (later) the United States, cremation was hardly practiced except in such cases. In the latter half of the 19th century, however, a number of organizations came into existence which promoted cremation among their members. The Church perceived that their promotion of cremation was rooted in an anti-Catholicism and a stark materialism, which denied realities which could not be physically demonstrated or proved (e.g., God or the soul). The Church also saw the reintroduction of cremation as a break with the long-standing Christian tradition of inhumation or burial of the dead. Probably in response to just such movements, the 1917 Code of Canon Law (canons 1203 and 1240) reiterated Catholicism's long-standing opposition to cremation, rooted as it often was in such a materialism; interestingly, Church legislation applying to mission territories was more tolerant of the practice.
On July 5, 1963, the Holy Office (the forerunner of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) issued a statement which permitted Catholics to pursue cremation, as long as it was not chosen as a sign of disrespect for the body or as a rejection of Christian belief. This found further expression in the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law (canons 1176 and 1184), and more recently in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 2301). Both the Code and Catechism, however, seem to suggest that while permitted, cremation should not necessarily become the norm.
The revised Order of Christian Funerals (approved by Rome in April 1987), which contains the prayers and ritual directives for celebrating funerals, did not take into account the possibility of cremation, largely because the Rite seems to presume that, if cremation were to take place, it should be done afterthe Vigil Service and Funeral Mass. That is, if one is to be cremated, the Rite presumes that the cremation itself will not be done until after the wake and funeral liturgy.
In the Spring of 1997, Rome approved an Appendix to the Order of Christian Funerals which deals with cremation. It reiterates the normative suggestion that the cremation take place after the funeral liturgy, but also permits (for the first time in Catholic history) a funeral liturgy to be celebrated with the ashes in a place of honor. The Appendix stresses that the same reverence shown to bodily remains be shown to cremated remains. The ashes are to be placed in "a worthy vessel" (again reaffirming reverence for the remains), and finally buried or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium (a structure specifically designed to hold cremated remains). The ashes are not to be scattered or sprinkled, since such actions are not in keeping with the reverence and respect the Church expects to be shown to the bodies of the deceased.
—Fr. Michael Heintz