The theology of death and Catholic funerals

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Ellyn, my favorite parish secretary, posted about a funeral and a ritual that the family wanted to have included. It got me to thinking a bit about why the church has the rules and rubrics, and why. A few of my rambling thoughts follow.
I have a special fondness for the ways in which the Church has developed ritual that reflects what we know both about human nature and God's plan. The Church has also developed rituals that incorporate the contrast between Christian teaching and pagan practices.
We are an incarnational faith, and our practices should reflect that belief. We believe that God so loved the world that he sent His only-begotten Son, who suffered and died for the remission of our sin. Jesus was begotten, not made. He had a human body. He suffered a horrible death by torture in that body. God gave us our bodies. Our bodies are not evil, they are good. We can choose them to do evil, and they can be corrupted by sin or disease, but that does not change the fact that our bodies are God's creation (with the cooperation of our earthly parents, of course). The Jewish tradition, which carried through the days of the apostles, has always been to show respect for the body after death by burying it intact. Jewish funeral practices also banned the scarification and self-mutilation often carried out by the living after the death of a family member or loved one. This respect is so deep that often an amputated body part is buried in the funeral plot where eventually the rest of the body will reside.
Christian funeral practices have also traditionally involved a respect for the intact burial (inhumation - literally in the earth - see the word root similarity to humility?) of the body. Cremation was seen as a last resort in times of plague and pestilence, and even then, mass burials were often preferred. By contrast, the non-Christian cultures surrounding the Christian countries often prescribed cremation as a religious ceremony - consider the practice of the Hindi, the Norsemen, the Attic Greek, the early Roman empire - where a funeral pyre was often an elaborate 'send-off' to a netherworld. There were other funeral rituals as well - there is still a group that exposes dead bodies to birds of carrion, and has done so for centuries (to protect both fire which they see as sacred and the earth from the 'contamination' of the dead).
Until quite recently, the Catholic Church reprobated the practice of cremation. (The recent change in policy is a further cause of discontent among some schismatic groups).This was primarily because the practice of cremation was strongly associated with a rejection of the doctrines of the resurrection of the body. The 1983 Code of Canon Law canon 1176.3 stipulates, "The 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." Originally, the idea was that the funeral would have the body present, and then the body would be cremated - this has further been modified to allow a funeral liturgy in the presence of the cremated remains.
What distresses me is that the average pew-sitter does not seem to realize that these concessions about cremation as opposed to inhumation, do not support the practice of ash-scattering or keeping the urn at the house. Nor do they support turning the remains into a 'jewel' or similar trends and fads. The church recognizes the human need to have a place, physically present, where the survivors can commemorate the deceased and pray for his or her soul. Being buried in consecrated ground has historically been very important. The bodily remains of a human person, even if incinerated, should be placed in a place that shows the respect due to one of God's human creations.
On my 40 some mile drive home from work, I pass anywhere from 3 to 5 of those improv roadside shrines. You know the kind I mean. The ones that mark a place where some one died in an automotive accident or shooting. The shrines are simple, maintained, and heartbreaking. I found myself wondering the other day - how many of those commemorated by these shrines have a burial place where there family can go?
for more on this topic, see below.
Father Pat on cremation (lots of CCC citations)
USCCB Catechesis on cremation
Cremation and Catholic funerals
Planning a Catholic Funeral
Catholics and Cremation


Thanks for taking the time to explain the Catholic belief about cremation. It's something I've never really understood ... but now it makes perfect sense.

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This page contains a single entry by alicia published on September 30, 2004 3:07 PM.

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