Catholic News Service photo
A selection of urns are seen on display in the mortuary at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Lafayette, Calif.
Catholic News Service photo
A selection of urns are seen on display in the mortuary at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Lafayette, Calif.
WASHINGTON — While cremation is not prohibited unless it is chosen for reasons "contrary to Christian teaching," the Catholic Church prefers that the body of a deceased person be buried in accord with church custom.

And even when cremation is chosen, the cremated remains of a deceased individual must be treated with respect and integrity. Many bishops make a point of saying cremated remains must be buried in a cemetery or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium.

"Especially to be condemned are the practices of scattering the ashes, enclosing them in jewelry, dividing them among relatives as keepsakes or doing other bizarre things with them," Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe wrote in 2010. "Such practices do not give honor to the body and, indirectly, are an affront to our belief in the resurrection of the dead."

Keeping ashes at home so that family members "may feel close" to their loved ones "shows a lack of faith in the communion of saints, by which we are spiritually united to the departed, in a way far more marvelous than keeping their remains on a shelf in our house," Archbishop Sheehan said.

Norms require that the length of time between a funeral liturgy and the burial of cremated remains not to exceed 30 days.

The new Code of Canon Law issued in 1983 said the church "earnestly recommends" the custom of bodily interment but does not prohibit cremation unless it is done for reasons "contrary to Christian teaching."

Since 1997, the U.S. bishops have had permission, in cases where the body has been cremated, to allow the cremated remains to be present at the funeral Mass or liturgy in their dioceses if they judged it pastorally appropriate. A survey has shown that one in five Catholics are cremated.

Still, the Catholic preference is to have the funeral Mass with the body. If cremation is the plan, it should happen afterward.

“The dead body is still something that is very much a part of our incarnational theology,” says Holy Cross Father Richard Rutherford, a University of Portland theologian and an expert in Christian funeral rites.

“The body is very sacred," Father Rutherford told the Catholic Sentinel last year. "Christians always buried or entombed their dead. They followed Jewish practice and saw it as taken for granted. It’s all incarnational.”

The idea that the body will be reassembled at the end times figures strongly in Christian burial practice. The sense was even stronger in the early church. In the Middle East and Mediterranean, many ancient Christians laid bodies of loved ones to rest in tombs and after a time would return to wash the bones reverently. The bones would then go in a lovingly made box — called an ossuary — and be placed back in the tomb.    

Today, that raises the question of what should be done with cremated remains. The general rule is to treat the cremated remains as one would a dead body.

“We don’t just throw a body on the ground or toss it into the woods,” says Msgr. Dennis O’Donovan, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Portland and director of Catholic cemeteries in western Oregon. Msgr. O’Donovan says cremated remains are out of place on the mantle or in a closet. “We would not put a body there,” he explains.

The Catholic way is to bury or entomb the cremated remains, preferably at a Catholic cemetery. They can even be placed in the grave of a loved one.

The church asks that cremated remains not be divided up. “We wouldn’t say, ‘You take mom’s leg,’ and send it with your brother and give the other one to your sister. Why would we do that with ashes?” says Tim Corbett, superintendent of cemeteries for the archdiocese.