All over the world, people have diverse ways of dealing with death. Some cultures believe in cremation and others in burying their bodies. Some of these traditions are the result of long-held religious beliefs, but others are more practical. With the Catholic church being around for two thousand years and present in every country in the world, how do we deal with death? Especially when many of our followers are from quite diverse cultures with different practices around death?
For example, do Catholics believe in cremation? Historically, we were not allowed to be cremated. However, in 1963 the Vatican lifted its ban and allowed us to cremate our deceased. They did, however, mandate that the body needed to be present for the funeral. After that, the cremation could take place. So, yes, we do believe in cremation.
In fact, in 1997, the Vatican loosened its requirements even more and recognized that sometimes bodies needed to be cremated prior to the funeral. In those cases, the cremated remains should be at the funeral. The Church also says that the remains should be treated with the same respect that the body receives and should be interred once the funeral is over. Unfortunately, we aren’t allowed to keep the urn on the mantel or scatter the remains someplace meaningful. We seem to have a lot of restrictions about death. Why is that?
Even though the Vatican eased up on its rules around cremation, it’s still not something we practice very often. The Vatican still prefers that a more traditional burial take place but has admitted that’s not always possible. They still won’t allow cremation if it’s intentionally chosen because it goes against other Christian teachings. We must have a valid social, economic, hygienic, or other reason to choose cremation over burial.
One of the biggest reasons why historically we weren’t allowed to cremate our dead was our Resurrection beliefs. Because Jesus died, was buried, and then resurrected three days later, we would be as well. Because Jesus was returned to his own body, the same will eventually happen to us.
We believe that when Jesus returns to earth, He’ll raise all those who have died and give us back our old bodies. These resurrected bodies will never die, and for the righteous, we’ll also be free from pain and suffering, and able to perform the same miracles Jesus once did.
This is also why we believe that remains must be buried in sacred ground or held in a consecrated building and not scattered or otherwise kept at home on the mantel. The important thing with cremated remains is that they must all be together. That way, when Jesus returns, He can raise us up. If we’re scattered to the wind, there’s no bringing us back together. However, things like burials at sea are allowed these days, provided the container is sealed and waterproof.
The Vatican started changing its mind about cremation in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1917, it ruled that while cremation was not allowed, certain exceptions could be made. For example, mass deaths from natural disasters or disease or other tragedies that required quick disposal of bodies for the good of the public were allowed.
As our faith started spreading to other countries where cremation was the traditional way of dealing with the dead, more allowances were made for the culture’s practice. For example, in places like India and China, cremation was the norm and burials were rare. The Vatican also acknowledged that for those of us who died far away from home, cremation was an easier way to be returned to our final resting place.
A Catholic Funeral
If you have never been to a Catholic funeral before, it can be difficult to understand the various parts of the ritual. Did you know we have three main parts to our funerals?
- The Vigil Service or Wake
- The Funeral Liturgy
- Rite of Committal (burial or interment)
The Vigil Service is often also known as “visitation hours” at the local funeral home. Sometimes there is also a viewing included with this, where we can go up to the deceased while they’re in their coffin and say our last goodbyes. Prayers are said, and often this is when the eulogies are given. We are encouraged to share memories of the deceased with each other.
Wakes are an Irish tradition. These days, they’re almost identical to the more common visiting hours and Vigil Service. But historically, wakes were a get-together of friends and family. The tradition meant that everyone got together in the same place as the deceased and stayed awake all night, keeping them safe from evil spirits. Today, Wakes tend to be less structured than Viewings and often take place locally with the community at a social hall or someone’s home. While we no longer sit up with the deceased all night any longer, it is still a wonderful way to celebrate the memory of our loved ones.
The Funeral Liturgy can be said as part of a Mass or on its own at the church or funeral home. Mass is our ritual of communion. Catholic Mass is usually offered during the week, always on Sundays, and often within ceremonies such as weddings, baptisms, and funerals. Although not required for any of those events, they are often added in for a deeper spiritual experience.
The Liturgy itself is a series of readings from the Old and New Testaments, Psalms, and Gospels. There are different liturgies for adults, children, and children who haven’t been baptized. There are even specialized readings for funerals that take place during Easter time. There are many appropriate readings from the Bible we can choose from, and we can also request specific passages that were favorites of the deceased.
The funeral itself, whether it has a Mass or not, is always performed by a priest. There is usually a procession of the coffin up the main aisle of the church. Holy water is sprinkled on the procession as they make their way to the front of the church. Then, there are readings from the Bible, hymns or other special songs, and prayers. If we have chosen to include Mass in the funeral, it would happen after the Liturgy. The coffin is then either taken back down the aisle and to the cemetery or off to be cremated. We don’t say any eulogies during the church service, as we do that during the Wake or Vigil Service instead.
The Rite of Committal is the final stage of our funeral rituals. If the person is being buried or has already been cremated, the procession usually heads directly from the funeral service to the cemetery. However, if the person is being cremated after the funeral, we’ll schedule the Committal to take place at the gravesite or another interment site once the body has been cremated. This can be a couple of days to a week after the funeral. At the burial site, in addition to the traditional prayers of the Committal service, we will include military or other social and cultural rites.
The death of a loved one can be a very traumatic time for all of us. Having traditions and rituals that we can fall back on is a comforting experience when everything seems crazy and out of control. Our ability to keep our long-held Catholic traditions while making allowances for new thoughts and ideas around cremation mean that we can continue to take part in our beloved religion without worrying about their chances of missing out during Jesus’s Second Coming.
If you are interested in learning about other Religions in the world, then check out this book on World’s Religions on Amazon.