Q — What is Catholic teaching on presence of the body at the funeral? Is it preferable to have the body as opposed to cremated remains at the funeral? If so, why?
A — One of the best brief responses to this question that I have seen is that authorized by Archbishop John Vlazny for the Archdiocese of Portland, and so I am going to follow that response closely.
First, it is important to recognize that all the various options for a Catholic funeral are contained in the ritual book, The Order of Christian Funerals. This is an immensely rich liturgical resource, and repays careful attention not only by those responsible for overseeing the liturgical rites but by Catholics in general.
The introductions to the various options and the theology behind them are outstanding. The prayers are very beautiful, and they communicate the essence of the Catholic understanding. Second, the normal sequence of events in a Catholic funeral is as follows: a Vigil service in the funeral home or in the church, the funeral liturgy itself in the church, and then finally the Rite of Committal at the cemetery. The normal expectation is that the body of the deceased will be present for the vigil service and for the funeral Mass, followed by burial.
If the decision has been made to cremate the body, the preference is that the cremation takes place after the funeral liturgy. Following up on the cremation, the cremated remains should be committed according to the Order of Christian Funerals, that is to say, they should be buried, or appropriately entombed in a mausoleum/columbarium. Nonetheless, the church does permit the funeral liturgy to be celebrated in the presence of the cremated remains.
To the question, “Why does the church prefer to have the body of the deceased present for the funeral liturgy rather than his/her cremated remains?”
One could not do better than look at the contextual comments in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2299-2301: “The dying should be given attention and care to help them live their last moments in dignity and peace. They will be helped by the prayer of their relatives, who must see to it that the sick receive at the proper time the sacraments that prepare them to meet the living God. The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and the hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit... The church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”
In these two sentences, I believe, we may see that the love and concern for the living person continues through their dying and death, and that the proper disposal of the remains of the person is part of this love and concern. I would argue — though it is not a foolproof argument by any means — that having the actual body of the deceased present for the funeral rites, and so before cremation, is a powerful and persuasive way of recognizing and expressing our belief that the human person does not die into nothingness.
Their visible and recognizable remains, in contrast to their cremated remains, may be of greater consolatory power to the bereaved.