John Grondeleski at Homelitics & Pastoral Review takes an opportunity to clarify the Catholic Church’s teaching on the subject of cremation, an option that has slowly and steadily been replacing the traditional funeral for many Americans.
the Church rescinded its prohibition on cremation in 1963, and Catholic acceptance of cremation is fast mirroring the general population. In light of the seemingly growing Catholic acceptance of cremation, it is appropriate for priests to bring some points to the attention of the faithful. While November, with its focus on prayer for the dead, seems especially appropriate, the pastoral need to address this phenomenon is year-round.
Hence the qualification:
The first point that merits emphasis is simply that the Church does not consider earth burial and cremation equally valid methods of dealing with the body of a deceased Christian. The Church considers burial to be its norm; cremation is an exception.
For a long time, those who chose cremation did so for ideological reasons: they were often materialists, intent on rejecting the Christian notion of the dignity of the body and its doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Belief in such principles was obviously incompatible with Catholic faith. When the Holy Office lifted its prohibition on cremation in 1963, it did so because it judged that now other reasons (e.g., limited land) motivated people seeking cremation, reasons that had nothing to do with explicitly rejecting basic elements of Christian anthropology and eschatology.
At the same time, the Church did not say that cremation was now the functional equivalent of burial in terms of dealing with Christian remains.
At one level, it’s not surprising to see the growth of this trend. Though it’s largely alien to the Catholic faith, cremating a loved one rather than holding a funeral seems to play into longstanding American tendencies, including a disdain for formality and ritual, and towards the abstraction of human existence from the clumsiness of immediate, incarnated reality. And while it’s true that our resurrection does not depend on having a perfectly-preserved corpse (or, as Paul notes in Corinthians, that our “natural” body precede a “spiritual” one), this is a far cry from seeing the body as unimportant or treating the physical and the spiritual as unintegrated.
American Catholics, it seems, have read a subtle shift in Church teaching as a wholesale reversal; the situation parallels, as Grondeleski points out, the confusion surrounding the continuing obligation of Friday penance. Yet the reality is more nuanced, more cautious, and more countercultural.