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Reflections on the Body, Cremation, and the Catholic Funeral Rites


The rites of the Order of Christian Funerals express the Church’s respect for, and intercession with God on behalf of, its deceased members and its hope in the resurrection of the dead. The Order of Christian Funerals also offers directions for appropriate pastoral care of the bereaved. 

Because certain pastoral challenges to the Catholic funeral tradition were already developing in the United States even as the revised ritual was being prepared for publication, the NCCB Committee on the Liturgy established a task group in 1989 to study these developments and to make recommendations to the Liturgy Committee about evolving Catholic burial practices. This statement reflects the fruits of that study, especially as it applies to the growing practice of cremation. 


The Church’s theology of death reflected in the Order of Christian Funerals was succinctly presented by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council, who taught that “the enigma of the human condition has as its most baffling point the confrontation with death.” They went on to say that when the human person recoils from and is horrified at the thought of total extinction, he or she is judging correctly. 

“The seed of eternity existing in each one of us reacts against death because that seed is itself not reducible to mere matter.... For God has called us and continues to call us to cling with all our being to an everlasting share in the imperishable divine life.” 

This human longing for union with God finds its fullest expression in the sure hope of Christians that “the Lord Jesus Christ will change our mortal bodies to be like his in glory, for he is risen, the firstborn from the dead.” At the center of Christian faith is the belief that God has destined the human family for eternal life with Christ, the risen Lord. All human life, all human history, has as its goal that blessed unity with Christ. 

For this reason, the human person, created in the image of God, has always been held in the highest esteem in Catholic tradition. All creation is holy, because it was brought into being at God’s command. But humankind is especially cherished, since the human person, individually and in community, reflects the divine reality and is destined for eternal life.

Human Death and Eternal Life 

Even death cannot rob us of our fundamental dignity as human persons. As painful as dying and death are to the human community, Christians are confident that, as they have imitated Christ in his death, so shall they imitate him in his resurrection. 

In death, the Christian’s participation in the life of the Trinity, begun in the cleansing waters of baptism, is not ended, but transformed. The journey of earthly existence ends in the embrace of eternal life; the sorrow of separation finds relief in the communion of saints. Death, while starkly real and total, is the vehicle of that final offering of self which calls for the supreme act of faith in the Lord of Life. Ultimately, in the face of death’s harshness and incomprehensibility is found the ultimate challenge of faith. 

The death of Christ is the prototype for all human death. Through his obedience unto death he established the nuptial bond between himself and his

Body and Bride, the Church. This act of self-giving is the basis for “the mystery of the redemption of the body” and the very substance of the Church’s life. Hence, there is a fundamental analogy between the offering of the cross and that of those who “fall asleep” in Christ. 

Viewed with the eyes of faith, death is not so much a finality to be feared as the gateway to the fullness of life in the presence of the Holy One. For “when the body of our earthly dwelling is laid aside, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.” 

This eternal life with God remains shrouded in mystery. The Christian knows by faith that the life of the immortal human soul continues after death and awaits the final coming of the triumphant Christ and the resurrection of the body. Still, much is unknown about this life after death; there is much that the Christian must await in hope. 

The Dignity of the Human Body 

Christians are unequivocally confronted by this mystery of life and death when faced with the presence of the body of one who has died. That body forcefully brings to mind our belief that our human bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit,” destined for future glory at the resurrection of the dead. In addition, the body that lies in death recalls the personal story of faith, the past relationships, and the continued spiritual presence of the deceased person. 

This is the body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. This is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing. 

Our identity and self-consciousness as a human person are expressed in and through the body. Indeed, the body is the “primordial sacrament” that makes the life and love of God present in the world. Thus, the Church’s reverence and care for the body grows out of a reverence and concern for the person whom the Church now commends to the care of God. 

The Church’s belief in the sacredness of the human body and the resurrection of the dead has traditionally found expression in the care taken to prepare the bodies of the deceased for burial. The prayers and gestures of Catholic funeral rites likewise affirm the Church’s reverence for the bodies of its deceased members. 

That reverence is not always shared by the society in which the Church exists. An exaggerated sense of privacy and individualism often prevents family members from providing the custody and care of the body that is properly theirs. This same concern with privacy, combined with a denial of the reality of death and human mortality, has resulted in an increasing tendency to shorten the period for mourning the passing of the deceased person. These practices contradict the Church’s emphasis on the indispensable role of the wider community in the dying and death of a Christian. 

Catholic tradition urges the Church today to face death with honest rituals that preserve its Christian and human values. Since, in rising to new life, Christ won victory over death for his followers, faith impels the Church to celebrate that victory in its funeral liturgies. 


For the Church, liturgical rites play an important role in articulating the community’s values and celebrating the transitional moments in life. Ritual action is especially important at times of greatest mystery, for events that we find difficult to apprehend because they are too beautiful or too sorrowful.  

The Order of Christian Funerals presents the Church’s plan for the cele­bration of the death of one of its faith­ful members. When the rites of the Order of Christian Funerals are fully celebrated, they ritualize the paschal exodus of one of the Lord’s disciples: the journey from life through death to fullness of life in God. 

In the vision explicit in the Church’s funeral rites, death, with its attendant judgment by God, is not to be feared. Rather, it completes the Christian’s life­long exodus with Christ who has broken the chains of sin and death through his own death and resurrection. Life with Christ began at the baptism of the Christian, it was strengthened at the table of the Eucharist, and now it finds completion in the communion of saints in heaven. The funeral rites are true celebrations and the means by which the Christian community can “offer worship, praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now been returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just.” 

Three separate and sequential rites are proposed as the most fitting way to celebrate this pilgrimage of the deceased Christian: the Vigil for the Deceased, the Funeral Liturgy, and the Rite of Committal. The physical movement or procession from one place to another for the celebration of these rites can add to the sense of journey or pilgrimage and contribute to the experience of separation through which mourners must pass before they are able to re-center their lives after the death of a family member or friend.  

Catholic funeral rites highlight several important beliefs and values that the Church affirms in its funeral practices: the sacredness of all human life; the dignity of the individual person; the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the firstborn of the dead, and of his faithful followers; death as an occasion to confront and embrace human mortality; the respect that is to be shown for the bodies of the dead; the importance of remembering the dead and offering prayers for them; and the need for the Church to provide a ministry of consolation to those who mourn. 


The Order of Christian Funerals reflects a theology and a tradition in which burial (interment or entombment) of the body has been the principal manner of the body’s final disposition. The long-standing practice of burying the body of the deceased in a grave or tomb in imitation of the burial of Jesus’ body continues to be encouraged as a sign of Christian faith. However, owing to contemporary cultural interaction, the practice of cremation has become part of Catholic practice in the United States and other parts of the Western world. 

When the revised Order of Christian Funerals was approved by the members of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 1985, several pastoral issues, including the use of cremation by Catholics, were not addressed in detail. At that time the practice of cremating the bodies of Catholics was not widespread in the United States. During the past ten years, however, statistics indicate that this practice has indeed become significant. In certain states cremation of the body is used in more than 40 percent of all funerals. In general, cremation is used in 20 percent of all funerals in the United States. 

Church Discipline Regarding Cremation 

Disposition of the bodies of deceased Catholics by means of cremation is a fairly recent development. Canon 1203 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law forbade the practice, and this prohibition continued until 1963. The May 8, 1963, instruction Piarn et Constantern issued by the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) stated that “the constant pious practice among Christians, of burying the bodies of the faithful departed, has always been the object of solicitude on the part of the Church, shown both by providing it with appropriate rites to express clearly the symbolic and religious significance of burial, and by establishing penalties against those who attacked this salutary practice.” The instruction went on to urge that “the practice of burying the bodies of the faithful is by all means to be kept,” but allowance was made for cremation in cases of necessity as long as it was not chosen as a sign of denial of Christian teaching, especially that of the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul. 

This 1963 concession is provided for in the 1969 Ordo Exsequiarurn, the Latin edition of the revised Catholic funeral ritual.’ It was later incorporated into the 1983 Code of Canon Law in canon 1176: “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.”

The Order of Christian Funerals and Cremated Bodies 

Although cremation is now permitted, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. Catholic teaching continues to stress the preference for burial or entombment of the body of the deceased. 

Likewise, the Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for its funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the values that the Church affirms in its rites. This preference is reflected in the Order of Christian Funerals, which contains provisions for the cremation of the body of the deceased following the Final Commendation that concludes the funeral liturgy and before the Rite of Committal.  Such an arrangement presumes the presence of the body at the funeral liturgy. 

Sometimes, however, it is not possible for the body to be present for the funeral liturgy. While promoting the values that underlie our preference for burial of the body, we must exercise sensitive pastoral judgment concerning the choice that nearly 20 percent of our people are making in favor of cremation. Economic, geographic, ecological, or family factors on occasion make the cremation of a body the only feasible choice. 

The Presence of the Cremated Remains at the Funeral Liturgy 

The Catholic Church strongly prefers that the body of the deceased be present for its funeral rites since the presence of the body most clearly brings to mind the life and death of the person. Therefore, the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy recommends that cremation take place following the funeral liturgy. Continuing effort should be made to catechize the faithful on this point. However, when circumstances prevent the presence of the body at the funeral liturgy, the committee believes that it is appropriate that the cremated remains of the body be present for the full course of the funeral rites, including the Vigil for the Deceased, the Funeral Liturgy, and the Rite of Committal. The funeral liturgy should always be celebrated in a church. The cremated remains of the body should then be reverently buried or entombed in a cemetery or mausoleum. 

The Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy has therefore directed the Secretariat for the Liturgy to prepare additional rites and texts for the Order of Christian Funerals to provide for the presence of the cremated remains of a body. These additional rites and texts include adaptations of the rites for the Final Commendation and the Committal. 

Respect for the Cremated Remains of a Body 

The Catholic Church commends its deceased members to the mercy of God by means of its funeral rites. It likewise asks that the Christian faith­ful continue to offer prayer for deceased family members and friends. The annual commemoration of all the faithful departed (All Souls Day) on November 2 attests to this salutary practice. Masses celebrated for the deceased on the anniversaries of death or other significant times continue the Church’s prayer and remembrance. For Catholic Christians, cemeteries,  especially Catholic cemeteries, are “prepared in the sure hope of the resurrection, (and) never cease to remind us of the life we are to share in Christ, who will transform our bodies to be like his in glory.” 

The remains of cremated bodies should be treated with the same respect given to the corporeal remains of a human body. This includes the manner in which they are carried, the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and their final disposition. The cremated remains of a body should be entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium; they may also be buried in a common grave in a cemetery. The practices of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires. Whenever possible, appropriate means for memorializing the deceased should be utilized, such as a plaque or stone that records the name of the deceased. 

Columbaria at Parish Churches 

As funeral practices in the United States have developed in the past few years, proposals have been made to construct columbaria for the cremated remains of the deceased at parish churches. In many cases the parishes considering such columbaria have no cemeteries for the interment or entombment of the deceased. 

Ecclesiastical law ordinarily does not allow the burial of corpses in churches. In a December 13, 1927, re­sponse, the Congregation for the Council stated that cadaver when used in canon 1214 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, simply means “the remains.” In addition, when canon 1205 §2 prohibits burying cadavers in churches, “Here, too, the word cadaver includes bones or ashes.” The prohibition noted in canon 1205 of the 1917 Code is repeated in canon 1242 of the 1983 Code. Therefore, columbaria should not be incorporated into parish church buildings. In addition to the prohibition in canon law, the possibility of closing parish churches and demolishing or selling church buildings containing columbaria raises particular concerns. 


The Order of Christian Funerals brings the Church’s rich funeral liturgy to the particular spiritual and social needs of our day, assisting those facing the searing pain of the death of a family member or friend with the confidence of the children of God. Immersed in the wonder of the paschal mystery of death and new life, the Church prays for the dead, filled with the confidence that God will wipe away all tears from our eyes and there will be no more death, no more tears, no more sadness.




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