If you have ever been to Italy, you might have visited the catacombs of Rome located outside the Walls of the city. The catacombs are subterranean passageways that were used by Christians as places of burial for many centuries.
The Roman law at that time prohibited the burial of the deceased in the city. It’s because of this that we find the catacombs outside the Walls. The lack of space and the exorbitant price of land prompted early Christians to build these vast underground cemeteries.
In the early times, the Romans cremated their dead due to their belief that there is no afterlife. Christians did not agree with the pagan custom of burning the bodies of their dead. They believed in the resurrection of the body after death. It would be raised with Christ at the end of time. Hence, they followed the custom of burying the dead, as the disciples buried Jesus’ body in a tomb.
The Christians wrapped the corpses in a sheet and placed them in niches, enshrined with gravestones made of marble or hardened clay. They carved a Christian symbol with the name of the deceased on the cover of the tomb.
Over the years, there has been a progression of the practice of Christian burial. The Church allowed the practice of cremation during times of natural disasters and plague. The burning and fast disposition of bodies were necessary for public health and sanitation.
The Church slowly moved to allow the process of cremation unless someone chose it as a way to deny the Christian teaching on Resurrection and reverence of the human body. The Canon Law of 1985 states that “The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (Code of Canon Law, 1985 No.176.3)
The practice of cremation has grown and become more commonplace in many countries. It is often used as a more affordable alternative to traditional burial.
In 1997, the Church allowed the celebration of a funeral in the presence of the cremated body. However, the Church maintains that ideally, if a family chooses cremation, the cremation would take place at some time after the Funeral Mass, so that there can be an opportunity for the Vigil for the Deceased in the presence of the body during “visitation” or “viewing.” This practice allows for the appropriate reverence for the sacredness of the body at the Funeral Mass: sprinkling with holy water, the placing of the pall, and honoring it with incense. The Rite of Committal then takes place after cremation (see the Order of Christian Funeral (OCF, 413-421).
However, many have often overlooked the Church’s teachings regarding the respect and honor due to the human body.
The Church maintains that the cremated remains should still be treated with the same respect as the human body while handling and transporting them. A worthy vessel should be used to contain the remains through its final disposition. The cremated remains should be entombed in a grave, mausoleum columbarium, burial plot in cemetery or mausoleum. This practice encourages the family and the Catholic community to pray for and remember the dead.
Many Catholics desire to scatter the ashes in a place which is special to them or their loved one. However, the practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains on the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires (OCF, no. 417).
In retrospect, the Church does not forbid cremation for various pastoral reasons, unless someone chooses it for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching. While the Church does not reject cremation, the Church earnestly recommends retaining the traditional way of burying the dead, as it was done for Jesus’ body. The Church reiterates that “all pastors are encouraged to show pastoral sensitivity, especially to those for whom creation is the only feasible choice” to take the body of their deceased loved ones to rest.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cremation and the Order of Christian Funeral