For much of its history, the Catholic Church banned cremation as a means of disposition for deceased Catholics. Cremation was not allowed according to the Catechism of the Church, as it was not a proper way to respect the dead and respect the human body. This is related to the notion that man was created in the likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27), and that the body must be ‘intact’ in order to be received into heaven. The Catholic Church originally banned the practice to counter Roman pagan beliefs, which involved cremating the dead, as they did not believe in the after-life.
Catholic Cremation is a subject that has received much debate and attention. Many Catholic churches still discourage cremation, those that do allow it will most likely have certain stipulations to be met. Interestingly the Bible has the words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, which many people take to mean that cremation is condoned by the scriptures. Being that 18% of our body is constituted from carbon (the second-highest component after water), a cremation fits the notion of ‘ashes to ashes’.
In Catholic belief, the soul leaves the body at death, only to be reunited at the end of time. The body is seen as a ‘holy temple’ to be preserved, and for a long time, Catholics believed that the soul could not be resurrected if the body had been cremated.
In 1963 the Vatican approved cremation, although they still would not allow cremated remains to be in attendance at a mass in the church.
By 1997 the Vatican was revising a new liturgical stance allowing cremated remains to be present at a mass, and the remains to be treated with the same reverence of a body in a casket. For this reason, there are still stipulations about the cremation urns that some churches will accept for a mass.
In October 2016, the Vatican made a statement with guidelines for Catholics who opted for cremation. These guidelines referred to conserving cremation ashes and prohibited the scattering of cremated remains.
Interestingly, these new guidelines focused on the sanctity of mortal remains, and while allowing cremation, outlined that cremated remains should not be stored at home or scattered. The Church infers that ashes should be interred in a cemetery plot or stored in a church area.
So, the Catholic Church still considers that scattering cremated remains is not acceptable, and keeping ashes in an urn at home is also forbidden. Cremated remains should be buried in a cemetery or crypt, just as a body would be.
This means that a cremation is an option now for Catholics, albeit with some stipulations.
Being that traditional church funeral masses can become elaborate and expensive, the acceptance of cremation within the Catholic Church has offered a much more affordable, yet still dignified and holy, alternative to many Catholics.
Cremation in the Christian World
Vatican issues guidelines on cremation, says no to scattering ashes