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Cremation attitudes, laws change through years

By RENEE WEBB, Globe senior reporter
(Email Renee)

For a good portion in the history of the Catholic Church, cremation was not used because it was deeply frowned upon and for a time the practice was all out banned.

According to Father Brent Lingle, diocesan director of worship, early Christians found cremation repugnant because of the belief in the resurrection of the body.

“The Catholic Church has always held in high esteem the dignity of the human person and the body,” Father Lingle said. “Part of the church’s teaching on the human body is that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and destined for glory at the resurrection of the dead. The church’s care and reverence for the dead flows from the church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person.”

The priest noted cremation had always been associated with pagan cultures and customs. In the early days of the church, he said, cremation was often chosen as a way for someone to show their denial of Catholic doctrine, namely the denial of the resurrection and the resurrection of the body.

“By the 5th Century, the practice of cremation had all but died out due to Christian influence,” he explained. “The first outright ban on cremation came in 1886 because cremation was starting to be used as an anti-religious practice.”

Change begins

Father Lingle explained the 1917 Code of Canon Law continued to forbid the practice and in 1963, the ban first began to relax.

The change to allow cremation first happened in 1963 with the instruction from the Holy Office “Piam et constantem,” which is now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“While the instruction allowed for cremation, as long as it wasn’t chosen for reasons contrary to the faith, it continued to urge ‘the practice of burying the bodies of the faithful is by all means to be kept,’” Father Lingle said. “When the funeral rites were revised in 1969, this provision was incorporated into it.”

Cremation was written into the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983. Canon 1176 states, “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.”

Father Lingle explained while cremation was permitted in 1963, it was still not possible to celebrate the funeral Mass in the presence of cremated remains as done with the body present. In 1997, permission was given from the Holy See to celebrate the funeral Mass in the presence of cremated remains.

“Even though it is permitted, cremation does not enjoy the same place as the burial of the body. The church continues to stress the preference for the burial of the body of the deceased based on the teaching that Christ’s own body was buried in a tomb,” said Father Lingle.

The church’s funeral ritual, he added, has a clear preference for the body to be present at the funeral and cremation to take place afterward.

Attitudes change

“Society has changed a lot in regards to its attitudes about death and burial over the course of the church’s history,” Father Lingle said. “By the time cremation was permitted in the church, cremation was usually not chosen to deny the Christian faith or to participate in pagan practices.”

The church, he added, wanted to be sensitive to the economic, geographic, ecological and family factors that sometimes make cremation a reasonable option.

Respecting remains

“The cremated remains should be treated with the same respect that we give to the human body; they are, after all, from the human body,” Father Lingle said. “The Catholic Church asks that they be placed in a worthy vessel, that they be carried and handled with dignity, transported reverently and finally disposed of in a reverent manner.”

The remains must be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium, which is a structure with niches for remains to be interred. He mentioned some cemeteries allow two cremated remains to be buried in one plot – as is the practice at Calvary Cemetery in Sioux City.

It is best, Father Lingle said, to direct questions of this nature to the particular cemetery where burial will take place.

“The church forbids the practice of scattering the remains, be it in the air, on the ground, over water,” he said. “It also forbids keeping the cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend. All of these things are not reverent disposition that the church requires.”

There has been a recent trend among funeral homes which offer cremation services, Father Lingle said, to sell jewelry and other items to place a small portion of the remains in as a “keepsake” for a relative or friend. This practice, however, is contrary to what the church teaches.

“It is always unacceptable for Catholics to have cremated remains made into jewelry, artwork or other objects of display or consumption,” he said.

Father Lingle noted the church does allow for burial at sea, as long as the cremated remains are buried in a heavy container and not scattered.

“All of these teachings and directives are based on the Christian’s foundational belief in eternal life, both body and soul,” the director of worship said. “When Christ comes again at the end of time, our bodies will be raised. Where Christ has gone, we too hope to follow.”

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