By: Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Prayer for the distribution of ashes
In our Catholic tradition, November is the month during which we are invited to both commemorate the faithful departed and contemplate our own mortality in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In death we are brought face-to-face not only with our mortality but with our corporality as well.
In life, each person is a unity of flesh and spirit, of body and soul. In death, this unity is broken and although we believe that life, in the words of the Proper for the Funeral Mass “is changed, not ended”, we are confronted with what remains, the body no longer animate, no longer animated by the spirit.
No longer alive, the body, like all living things that have died, is subject to corruption and decay. We are reminded of this stark reality each year on Ash Wednesday, when we are marked with ashes and admonished to remember at the beginning of Lent that we “are dust” and will one day in death return to dust. The Church in its rites does this to caution us that now is the time to repent and reform our lives, lest death take us unaware and unprepared to answer for our lives.
Yet this same body, subject to death and corruption, is also destined for the glory of the resurrection. Each of us, as sharers in the Lord’s death through the waters of baptism, are sharers too in his rising from the dead. Each of us, by the anointing of the Holy Spirit has put on Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, who put on our humanity. In the Holy Gifts of the Lord’s Body and Blood Jesus has joined our lowly bodies to his glorified body in the world to come. Hence, the reverence with which the Church regards the bodies of the faithful who have fallen asleep in death. Historically, Christians buried their dead, either in underground crypts or catacombs as was the practice of the first Christians of Rome or sarcophagi or in the ground. In the Middle Ages, Christians in the East and West buried the dead in churchyards or cemeteries as a visible sign of the unity in Christ of the living and the dead.
Beginning in the late 19th century, the practice of cremation began in Europe and in North America. Because cremation was often-times intended by atheists and skeptics to ridicule the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead, in 1889 Church explicitly enjoined Catholics from being cremated and refused to bury the ashes of those who willfully did so. A secondary, but significant reason for this prohibition was liturgical: the prayers and rituals of the Catholic funeral rites presuppose the presence of the body of the deceased.
The prohibition of cremation (except in extraordinary circumstances such as mass death due to epidemic, natural disaster or war) changed in 1963. Since then, Catholics whose bodies have been cremated may receive a Christian burial unless they were motivated by anti-Catholic sentiments.
In 1997 the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments published an appendix to the Order of Christian Funerals with directives about cremation and the funeral rites. Although cremation is permitted, the Church’s liturgical norms stress the importance of the presence of the body in the funeral liturgy.
In the beautiful introduction, it is noted that “the body which lies in death naturally recalls the personal story of faith, the loving family bonds, the friendships, and the words and acts of kindness of the deceased person. Indeed, the human body is inextricably associated with the human person, who acts and is experienced by others through that body. It is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing.” (OCF no.411)
For this reason, the Church’s preference is for burial of the body. Even when a deceased member of the faithful is to be cremated, the Church strongly “prefers and urges” that their body be present at the Vigil and the Funeral Mass (or Funeral Outside of Mass), with cremation to follow.
However, if the body has already been cremated before the funeral liturgy, the rites, including the Mass, may take place in the presence of the cremated remains of the body of the one who has died. The ashes should be contained in a worthy vessel and be treated with the same respect and reverence that is due a body.
Just as with a body, the Church requires that the ashes of those who have died should be accorded the rites of committal and be reverently interred: either in a grave or columbarium (such as at the Shrine of St. Therese) or buried at sea. The widespread practice of scattering ashes, either on the sea or from the air or on the ground is not part of our Catholic tradition, nor is it permitted. Neither is the practice of permanently keeping the ashes of those who have died in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased, or dividing up the ashes among friends and family. Or the practice of incorporating the ashes of those who have died in jewelry or art glass.
Let us instead be guided and inspired by these words from the Prayer of Committal of Cremated Remains from the Order of Christian Funerals:
In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ,
we commend to almighty God
our brother or sister
and we commit his/her earthly remains
to the ground [or the deep or their resting place]:
earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.