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Cremation? Not for Catholics

by Fr. Benedict Hughes, CMRI

History of Burial vs. Cremation

Although both of these methods of disposition of the dead were found among early peoples, earth burial prevailed in most ancient cultures. Cremation was unknown, in practice at least, to the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Persians, Chinese, the inhabitants of Asia Minor, or even to the early Greeks and Romans. “The Babylonians, according to Herodotus, embalmed their dead, and the Persians punished capitally such as attempted cremation, special regulations being followed in the purification of fire so desecrated” (Devlin, p. 481).

Burial among the Chosen People. The Jews, in particular, used inhumation exclusively, with a few exceptions being tolerated during times of pestilence or war (cf.: I Kings, 31:12). The incidents of the burial of their dead, and of their respect for mortal remains, are frequent throughout the Old Testament. The book of Genesis mentions the burials of Sarah, Abraham, and Rachel. Of particular interest, however, is the story of Jacob ’ s final days. Knowing that his end was approaching, Jacob called his son Joseph to his bedside. He then explained to Joseph his desire to be buried with his forefathers, in the cave which Abraham had purchased. Then Jacob asked his son Joseph to swear to him that he would fulfill this request. After Jacob ’ s death, Joseph had his father embalmed, and then sought permission from Pharaoh to take the body to the land of Chanaan for burial. A large caravan composed of the many relatives of Jacob, riding in chariots, escorted the body to the place of burial. (cf.: Genesis, 47-50).

The death of Joseph is even more interesting. Shortly before his death, Joseph made the heads of the tribes swear that they would transport his bones back to the land of promise when they should be delivered from Egypt — a promise which their descendants fulfilled several hundred years later.

Another example of burial among the Chosen People is still more striking. The Fourth Book of Kings relates the numerous miracles of the prophet Eliseus. When he died, the prophet was given proper burial. Later that same year, the body of a man that had died was buried in the sepulcher of Eliseus. “And when it had touched the bones of Eliseus, the man came to life, and stood upon his feet” (4 Kings, 13:21).

The story of Tobias. There is also a fascinating history in the Old Testament which I would like to briefly narrate. It is the story of the holy man Tobias, as recounted in the scriptural book which bears his name. During the Assyrian Captivity Tobias would secretly bury the bodies of his deceased countrymen, at a time when the practice was forbidden under pain of death by their pagan captors. Although God tested the fidelity of Tobias (who lost his sight), as He had done that of Job, in the end the holy man was rewarded in a remarkable way for his charity. The Archangel Raphael appeared in the guise of a man in order to guide the younger Tobias on a long journey, protecting him from harm, finding for him a wife and delivering her from the devil, recovering a debt owed to Tobias, and, at last, leading the young man back safe to his father who then recovered his sight. Astounded at their good fortune, the elder Tobias and his son offered their benefactor half their wealth, not knowing as yet that he was an angel. St. Raphael then revealed himself, saying: “When thou didst pray with tears, and didst bury the dead, and didst leave thy dinner, and hide the dead by day in thy house, and bury them by night, I offered thy prayer to the Lord ” (Tobias, 12:12). This corporal work of mercy — of providing proper burial at the risk of his life — is what brought down upon Tobias and his family such signal favors.

The practice of the Romans. Since the founding of their city, the Romans practiced burial exclusively, until around the year 100 BC. At that time, cremation began to be practiced, especially to prevent enemies from unearthing dead soldiers and desecrating their bodies. Cremation, however, was restricted to the more wealthy Romans. The poorer people continued the use of burial, since they could not afford the cost of the funeral pyres. After the year 63 BC, Jewish colonies were founded at Rome, and these Jews were permitted to have their own burial grounds. Christians eventually came to Rome, and, after Nero began to persecute them in 64 AD, they began excavating the fascinating labyrinths of underground tunnels known as catacombs. There are 60 catacombs in the vicinity of Rome, many of them having tiers of tunnels, as many as three or four deep. (While the Roman catacombs are the best known, catacombs were also constructed at Naples and Milan, and in parts of France, Greece, Illyria, Africa and Asia Minor.) The amazing Roman catacombs, if connected to one another, would stretch for hundreds of miles, a feat of incredible magnitude, especially given the times of persecution. Although the catacombs served as places for hiding and the practice of Christian worship, they were primarily designed as burial grounds to safeguard Christian graves against desecration, especially since the bodies of Christians were sometimes burned for the purpose of mocking their belief in the future life.

With the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century, the persecutions ceased. Gradually, as Christianity spread throughout the empire, pagan practices such as cremation were discontinued. Cremation ceased altogether by the fifth century to be an acceptable form of disposing of the dead. Cremation did not exist in the Western world from that time until the 19th century, when freethinkers revived the practice as a way of attacking Christianity.

Christian Opposition to Cremation

Religious motives inspired opposition to cremation in the early Christians. They opposed the practice since destruction of the body by fire symbolized annihilation and the materialistic idea that death is the absolute end of man ’ s life. Indeed, their pagan persecutors often burned the corpses of martyred Christians to mock their belief in the resurrection of the body.

The body is the temple of the Holy Ghost. Further, the early Christians understood the dignity of the human body. Destruction by fire seemed to them a serious lack of reverence for a body that had been the temple of the Holy Ghost. Anointed in baptism, Confirmation and Extreme Unction, and fed with the divine food of the Holy Eucharist, our bodies are sanctified. St. Paul states, “Do you not know that your members are the temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you? ... Glorify God and bear him in your body ” (I Cor., 6: 19-20).

Needless to say, destruction by fire cannot prevent God on the day of resurrection from reuniting the elements which had constituted a particular human body. Yet this fact does not excuse a lack of respect for the bodies of the deceased. St. Paul compares the burial of the Christian to the sowing of seeds. “What is sown in corruption rises in incorruption; what is sown in dishonor rises in glory; what is sown in weakness rises in power; what is sown a natural body rises a spiritual body ” (I Cor., 15: 42-44). Indeed, Christ rose from the dead after His burial, “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep ” (I Cor., 15:20).

The word “cemetery. ” The very word “cemetery ” is a Christian word, taken from “koimeterion, ” the Greek word for dormitory. Our use of this word, then, indicates our faith in the resurrection of the body, which is asleep in the cemetery until that final triumph. The faithful of various countries have other terms for cemeteries. Thus in England, in Catholic times, it was called “God ’ s Acre, ” while in Italy a cemetery is called Campo Santo, the “Holy Reserve. ” These terms express that truth of our Faith, so well phrased by St. Augustine: “Death is not death for us, but sleeping; for those we call dead are keeping a vigil until their resurrection. ”

The Catholic Tradition

In the writings of the early Church Fathers, we find references to burial as an expression of our Faith. Even Julian the Apostate:

“noting how Christians regarded the burial of the dead as one of their corporal works of mercy, ... listed their religious care of the dead as one of the means by which they obtained so many converts; and therefore as one of the first things to be suppressed if Christianity was to be stamped out of existence ” (Rumble, p. 7).

Did not Our Lord Himself commend the good work of Mary, who poured ointment on His head and feet, saying, “She has done this for my burial ” ? Further, as St. Augustine says in the City of God, the Gospel has crowned with eternal praise those who took down the body of Jesus from the Cross and gave it honorable burial. And what of the blessings bestowed upon the holy women, who went early the first day of the week, in order to anoint the body of Our Lord?

Consecrated ground. Reverence for the bodies of the deceased is also evident in the Church ’ s ritual for the dedication of a cemetery — a ceremony performed by the Bishop or his delegate. The elaborate ceremony consists of prayers and chants, during which the ground is sprinkled with holy water, sanctifying it as a fitting resting place for the bodies of the faithful. The consecrated ground of the cemetery is normally located close to the church, indicating the respect it deserves. Moreover, Church law directs that a fence or barrier be placed around the cemetery, segregating it from unconsecrated ground and keeping out animals, lest the sanctity of the cemetery be profaned.

The faithful have always desired to be buried in ground blessed by a Catholic priest. It is considered one of the greatest of misfortunes to be denied Catholic burial, to be buried in unconsecrated ground. That is why the priest, when he performs a burial in a non-Catholic cemetery, always blesses the individual grave as part of the graveside ceremony.

Revival of Paganism

As stated above, the practice of cremation was not revived until the 19th century. Let us take a look at the forces which brought about this change.

The Age of Reason. Freethinking philosophers in the 17th century inaugurated a movement which later became known as the “Age of Reason, ” but which in fact was nothing more than a revival of paganism. The way was prepared by English philosophers such as Hobbes (died 1679) and Locke (died 1704) and by the inauguration of Freemasonry in London in 1717. Voltaire, a French philosopher, traveled to London, where he was initiated as a Freemason in 1726. Together with Rousseau and Diderot, he promoted the cause of secular liberalism in France, bitterly attacking the Church and her customs. These efforts eventually bore fruit in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was issued during the French Revolution. As a result, churches were confiscated and desecrated, religious orders were suppressed, and the worship of “Reason ” was substituted for the sacrifice of the Mass.

This movement gave rise to the atheistic Republican Government in France which, in 1797, proposed the revival of cremation as a substitute for Christian burial. Although there were a few scattered incidents of its use, however, the movement would not catch on for more than 75 years. Customs do not change easily, but a movement was born. Societies were formed to urge cremation as a way of impressing people with the idea that all is over with death. Cremation was considered an apt symbol for the naturalistic concept of annihilation.

The Cremation Movement. Various subterfuges were used to justify the cremation movement. People were told it would be more sanitary, that earth burial might cause pollution of the soil, air or water — claims that have been proven groundless. The real motive behind the movement, however, can be seen in a quotation taken from a Freemasonic publication:

“The Brethren of the lodges should employ all means to spread the practice of cremation. The Church, in forbidding the burning of bodies is... merely seeking to preserve among the people the old beliefs in the immortality of the soul and in a future life — beliefs overthrown today by the light of science ” (quoted by M. A. Faucieux in Revue des Sciences Ecclesiastiques, 1886).

The first crematorium in modern times was built in Italy (Milan) in 1874. It may surprise the reader to realize that a Catholic country should be the first to have a crematorium. A knowledge of the history of modern Italy, however, easily provides the reason. In 1870 Mazzini and Garibaldi, both Grand Orient Freemasons, had succeeded in capturing Rome, thereby reducing Pope Pius IX to the status of a prisoner in the Vatican. A profoundly anti-Catholic government was then set up in Italy. After the fabrication of the first crematorium in Italy, others were soon set up throughout Europe and America.

Laws of the Church

The authority of Holy Mother Church was not slow in responding to the cremation movement. On May 19, 1886, the Holy See issued a strong condemnation of all attempts to revive the pagan practice of cremation. The decree strictly prohibited Catholics from giving directions for the cremation of their own bodies or the bodies of others. Moreover, bishops and priests were directed to instruct the faithful that cremation is a detestable abuse, and in every way to urge Catholics to refrain from it.


   

Canon 1203: The bodies of the faithful must be buried, and cremation is reprobated. If any one has in any manner ordered his body to be cremated, it shall be unlawful to execute his wish; if this order has been attached to a contract, a last will, or any other document, it is to be considered as not added.

Canon 1240: The following persons are deprived of ecclesiastical burial, unless they have before death given some signs of repentance: ...(5) persons who have given orders for the cremation of their bodies;....


On December 16 of the same year, the Holy See issued another decree which is still more emphatic. It directs that any Catholic cremated as a result of his own previously expressed desire is to be refused the rites of Christian burial.

Finally, on July 27, 1892, still another decree was issued, forbidding priests to administer the Last Sacraments to one who had arranged to have his body cremated, unless he repented of this defiance of the laws of the Church and canceled such arrangements. The Code of Canon Law (1917) expresses these decrees in Canons 1203 and 1240 (see inset at right).

Modern Concerns

The repeated condemnations of cremation by the Church did not derail the cremation movement. It has spread to the point that its practice in our times is quite common. In a recent inquiry, the author was told by a funeral director that at his funeral home, there are as many cremations as burials.

Reasons for cremation. Why do so many people opt for cremation, a practice that is so contrary to our human nature? Certainly one reason is the cost. A query to a local funeral home yielded the following information: A regular funeral will normally cost at least $3,000, whereas cremation can cost as little as $865. Quite a difference! In addition, many people do not want to be bothered with the cost of purchasing a burial plot and seeing to its upkeep. No doubt a lack of genuine charity to the departed in our materialistic age is also to blame. One marvels at the beauty of so many cemeteries in European countries, where the Catholic culture has inspired succeeding generations to care for the graves of their forebears. Many today do not wish to be bothered with such a task. (To counter some of the arguments that are raised in modern times, the Holy See issued still another decree in 1926).

Cremation not intrinsically evil. It is important that Catholics understand that cremation is not intrinsically evil, and therefore it could be tolerated by Church authority for a grave reason. Rather, it is condemned by the Church because of its symbolism and because cremation was promoted by the enemies of the Faith for the very purpose of expressing and advancing their materialistic belief in annihilation. Further, earth burial is so much more appropriate to the dignity of the body and in keeping with our love and respect for our departed relatives and friends.

In the Postconciliar Church. The prevalence of cremation today would hardly be so pronounced had it not been for Vatican Council II. In fact, the modern Postconciliar Church, in its 1983 Code of Canon Law, specifically allows for cremation (“unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching ” Canon 1176, #3). Consequently, the practice is no longer forbidden to the members of the Postconciliar Church. This very fact is just one more proof that this modern church is not of God, is not Catholic.

Conclusion

Catholics have long valued the rites of Christian burial. We might say that this appreciation is part of the Sensus Catholicus and is something we imbibe through the devout living of our Faith. As I travel on mission circuits, I am often asked by faithful Catholics if a priest will be there for them when they die — if they will have a Catholic funeral. I have often been impressed by how relieved they are when I assure them that we will provide a priest for their funeral and, if possible, be there in their dying moments.

Let us not forget, as well, that a Catholic funeral is a great blessing for the faithful who remain behind. The beautiful Requiem Mass; the blessing and incensing of the coffin; the wonderful Gregorian melodies of the Subvenite, the Libera Me, and the In Paradisum; and the final prayers at the graveside — all are a great blessing and consolation for the faithful who witness them. They not only remind us of the great truths of eternity, but they also demonstrate the motherly love of the Church, who cares for her children from our birth to the grave.

While we possess many benefits as members of the Catholic Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, certainly one of the greatest is the blessing of Christian burial, with our fellow Catholics in attendance praying for the repose of our soul and the priest, the representative of Christ, blessing our mortal remains before they are lowered into the earth, there to pay our common debt for the sin of Adam (“Remember man that dust thou art and into dust thou shalt return ” ) and there to await the glorious day of the resurrection, when our mortal bodies, now glorified, shall be once more reunited with our souls, never again to be separated. These are the truths that come to mind as we witness a Catholic burial.

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Sources

Bouscaren, T. L. (1934). Canon Law Digest, vol. I. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co.

Code of Canon Law in English Translation, The. (1983). London: Collins Liturgical Publications.

Coriden, J. (1985). The Code of Canon Law, a Text and Commentary. New York: Paulist Press.

Devlin, W. (1908). “Cremation.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Holy Bible, New Catholic Edition of the. (1957). New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co.

O’Sullivan, P. (E. D. M.). (1954). St. Philomena the Wonderworker. Lisbon: The Catholic Printing Press.

Rumble, L., M.S.C. (1960). Is Cremation Christian? St. Paul: Radio Replies Press Society.

Woywod, S., O.F.M. (1957). A Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law. New York: Joseph F. Wagner, Inc.


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