Cremation and Catholicism: What Are the Rules?


More people are choosing to have their bodies cremated upon their physical death than ever. [1] Cremation has become more popular than burial for a variety of reasons, including lessening the financial burden on loved ones to reducing the impact on the environment. The Catholic church prefers that bodies be buried, yet provides guidelines for those who choose cremation.

The Catholic church permits cremation as long as the motivation for it doesn’t conflict with Christian teaching. It also offers important guidelines for the ashes, which may not be spread outside or kept in urns. These rules are intended to reflect Catholic beliefs about death, hope, and faith.

When is it a sin to get cremated? Can a cremated person still receive a Catholic funeral? Why does the Catholic church prefer burial β€” what does it matter? Keep reading to learn more.

Christian cross
Can you have a Catholic funeral if you are cremated? See below.

Is it a sin to get cremated?

According to the official teachings of the Catholic church, cremation isn’t a sin. The motivation for being cremated, however, can be sinful if it’s contrary to Christian teaching. When the motivation for cremation doesn’t contradict Christian teaching, then it’s a matter than calls for using wisdom. The Code of Canon Law 1176 states,

β€œThe Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.” [2]

The act of cremation alone, aside from a person’s motivation for it, isn’t a transgression of God’s law. The act of cremation doesn’t offend God, according to Catholic teaching, just as someone dying in a burning building or forest fire isn’t inherently sinful.

However, if a person’s motivation aligns with Hindu or Buddhist teaching, for example, which is contrary to a biblical worldview, then their reason for desiring cremation is sinful.

Can you have a Catholic funeral mass if you are cremated?

The Catholic church permits funeral masses for cremated people as long as their reasons for not choosing burial didn’t conflict with Christian teaching. If it did conflict with Christian teaching, the church will refrain from aligning itself with non-biblical belief systems and practices in order to preserve the holiness and purity of its ministries.

What is the purpose of a Catholic funeral mass? The purpose of a funeral mass isn’t just to pay respects to the deceased, but it’s an occasion for the church to minister to loved ones in their sorrow and to affirm their beliefs about God, death and the afterlife. One of the church’s clearly-stated reasons for funerals is to honor the bodies of the deceased, which reflects the importance of physical bodies, even upon death, according to Catholic theology (Canon 1176).

Does a Catholic have to be buried in a church cemetery? Not necessarily. Some churches don’t have cemeteries, but even if one does, people are free to be buried elsewhere. Everyone “is permitted to choose the cemetery of burial unless prohibited by law.” (Canon 1180).

Who should not receive funerals in Catholic churches? Canon Law 1184 clearly states that some people must not receive a funeral in a Catholic church. The commonality between those mentioned are their lack of faith in Christ, their promotion of false teachings, and people who choose cremation for the wrong reasons:

  • “notorious apostates, heretics, and schismatics”
  • “those who chose the cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to Christian faith”
  • “other manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful” [3]

Aren’t there other occasions when a body isn’t available for funerals? Of course. Sometimes the manner in which a person dies determines whether their body is present at a funeral. Someone who loses their life in combat, drowns at sea, or dies in a plane crash, can still have a Catholic funeral even though there may not be a body present.

The reasons for cremation, and their possible conflict with Christian teaching, is the crux of the issue, according to church leadership. God is all-powerful and is able to restore a burned body, or one destroyed in another fashion, at the end of time, just like he is able to restore one that is buried in a coffin in a graveyard.

Catholic church grave
Why does the Catholic church prefer burial? See below.

What are the rules for the ashes?

If a person chooses cremation, even for appropriate reasons, how loved ones handle the ashes of the deceased is important, according to church teaching.

  • the ashes of the deceased may be laid to rest in a sacred place, like a church cemetery
  • examples of forbidden practices include: sprinkling their ashes at sea, encasing them in a piece of jewelry like a necklace, and keeping them in an urn in one’s home
  • the ashes must of the deceased must not become sacred; Catholic history contains stories of people who treated the bodies of deceased people, or part of them, like hair and fingernails, as holy objects, which is contrary to Christian teaching
  • the ashes of the deceased person must not be divided; it’s not permissible for a family to have some of a person’s ashes in a church cemetery and some in an urn in their home, or some in a church cemetery and some sprinkled at sea

What if a cremated person doesn’t want a Catholic funeral, but their family wants one for them? Whether a person is cremated or buried, a funeral mass for a person who doesn’t one isn’t permissible. “When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith, a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law.” [4]

What if a person wants to be buried, but their family wants them to be cremated? According to church teaching, this is strictly forbidden. “In circumstances when cremation is chosen because of sanitary, economic or social considerations, this choice must never violate the explicitly-stated or the reasonably inferable wishes of the deceased faithful.” [4]

Catholic funeral
All believers in Jesus Christ will be resurrected in the end times

Why does the Catholic church prefer burial?

The Bible teaches that physical bodies will experience resurrection one day. God created human beings in his image and according to his likeness on the sixth day of creation (Gen. 1:26-27). Bodies have inherent worth because they are God’s design and bear his image. Sin marred bodies with aging, weakness, disability and disease, but they will be redeemed through Jesus Christ. Bible verses that reflect on this future reality include,

  • Romans 8:11, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (ESV)
  • John 6:40, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (ESV)
  • Philippians 3:21, “Who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (ESV)

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
[4] Source

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel has been in Christian ministry for 25 years. He has been an Associate Pastor and a Senior Pastor. Currently in higher education, Daniel has taught more than 25 different undergraduate courses in Bible and theology-related topics.

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