Is cremation forbidden by the Catholic Church?

A common question about funerary rites that is raised today is whether it is licit for Catholics to be cremated instead of being buried, particularly when the former practice is more economical.

We offer for the benefit of our readers a reply on this important subject from the Questions & Answers section of The Angelus magazine.

Does the Catholic Church forbid cremation?

Answered by Fr. Leo Boyle

At no period in the history of Catholicism was the practice of cremation ever adopted or favored in the Catholic Church. From the very beginning, burial of the dead, i.e., inhumation, was an inviolable practice in the Church and she struggled constantly against cremation, a pagan custom often accompanied by rites incompatible with the Catholic Faith.

Under Boniface VIII whoever practiced cremation was excommunicated and the remains even of the corpse were refused Christian burial. With the advent of the French Revolution in 1789 an attempt was made on November 11, 1796 to introduce cremation; it met with no success. It was only as a result of Masonic influence and pressure that in the final quarter of the 19th century the idea of cremation became fashionable and certain governments gave it official recognition.

The campaign was begun in Italy and the first experiments took place in 1872 by Brunetti in Padua, and in April 1873, the Italian Senate gave approval, and, in Milan on January 22, 1876 the first cremations took place. Later in Germany, France, Sweden, Norway and England the practice was legalized.

The Church reacted strongly. Cremation in itself is not intrinsically evil, nor is it repugnant to any Catholic dogma, not even the resurrection of the body for even after cremation God’s almighty Power is in no way impeded. No divine law exists which formally forbids cremation. The practice is, however, in opposition to the constant, unbroken tradition of the Church since its foundation.

Three decrees emanated from the Holy Office:

On May 19, 1886 in answer to two questions posed by the bishops, the Church forbade the joining of cremation societies which were for the most part of Masonic origin and spirit, and it was further condemned to request cremation of one’s own body or the body of another.

Some seven months later, December 15, 1886, Pope Leo XIII ratified this document. Catholics who destined their bodies for cremation were deprived of a proper Christian burial.

On July 27, 1892, the matter was definitively resolved. Priests were requested not to give such Catholics the last rites; no public funeral Mass could be said."

However, in certain strict circumstances the Church tacitly or even expressly authorizes cremation, e.g., in the case of an epidemic where public health safety is in question.

Unfortunately, however, the document of Pope Paul VI, Piam et constantem, of July 5, 1963, introduced a process of reversal of Church practice. Where it is alleged there is no denial of Catholic doctrine nor contempt for the body, nor hatred of the Faith, cremation is permitted. Hygienic and economic reasons may play a part in this permission.

This paved the way for Canon 1176 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, paragraph 3, in which cremation is permitted though burial is earnestly recommended, but it is only the recommendation of a pious custom. Funeral rites are forbidden for those who have chosen cremation for reason contrary to the Christian Faith (canon 1184, §1.2º). It is also forbidden to scatter the ashes or to have them in your home; they must be buried or placed in a vault in a cemetery.

What should be our attitude, as faithful Catholics, to this change of legislation? The liberalization of the law forbidding cremation is without a doubt a concession to the ever increasing influence of Freemasons and those who refuse the belief in the resurrection of the body. We have now, more than ever before, the obligation of professing our Faith in this important article of the Creed, for it is precisely by opposition to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body that this custom has become commonplace.

Consequently we must adhere to the constant tradition of the Church, which numbers the burial of the dead as one of the corporal works of mercy, so great must be our respect for the body, "the temple of the Holy Ghost" (I Cor. 6:19). We should neither ask for cremation, nor permit it for our relatives nor attend any religious services associated with it [on this last point, the pastor should be consulted about cases where cremation was chosen out of ignorance of Church teaching—Ed]. This is precisely what the traditional (1917) Code of Canon Law prescribes:

If a person has in any way ordered that his body be cremated, it is illicit to obey such instructions; and if such a provision occur in a contract, last testament or in any document whatsoever, it is to be disregarded. (canon 1203, §2)."

It is likewise stated "those who give orders that their body be cremated" are amongst those who "must be refused ecclesiastical burial" (canon 1240, §1, 5º).