The Casuist: A Collection Of Cases In Moral And Pastoral Theology
Author: Rev. John A. McHugh, O.P.
Source: The Casuist: A Collection Of Cases In Moral And Pastoral Theology, Volume 2



Mr. B., a firm believer in modern methods of public sanitation, has made provision in his will that after his death his body shall be cremated. May he receive the last Sacraments and Christian burial, and why is the Church so opposed to cremation?


All civilized nations, both ancient and modern, have regarded the burial of the dead as a religious rite. In ancient Rome, it took precedence over every other service, whether public or private. The Roman soldier could demand leave of absence from the army, not only to bury his dead, but also for the feast of the purification of the family, called feriae denicales, which occurred nine days after the burial.

Not only were the last rites of the dead considered religious or sacred, but the burial place also, by virtue of the laws, enjoyed a religious character. It was quite natural, therefore, that, in the nascent Church, the Christians, professing a different religion from the Romans, should also differentiate themselves from the pagans in the manner and place of burying their dead.

The common practice in pagan Rome, at the beginning of the Christian era, was to bum the bodies of the dead. This had not been the ancient custom, even among the Romans, and at the dawn of Christianity there still prevailed among them the practice of cutting off a bone from the corpse, or rescuing one from the fire, in order to deposit it in the earth. The reason for this was that the burial of the ashes of the dead after cremation did not render the burial place sacred; it acquired a religious or sacred character and was brought under the protection of the laws only by the burial of some part or bone of the body, that had not been cremated. Each family had its own burial place, restricted to the parents and children and brothers and sisters, and a few intimate friends and favorite freedmen. The idea of a general burial place for all the inhabitants of a town or district was unknown to the ancients. The indiscriminate burial of friends and foes, relatives and strangers, in one monument where their ashes would be mingled together, was especially abhorred by the people and severely punished by the law.

It was to be expected, therefore, that the Christians, who believed in the resurrection of the body as one of the great articles of the new faith, should have had, from the very beginning, a great religious care for the bodies of their dead and for all the rites attending their burial. They adhered to the more ancient custom of the Romans, as well as of the Jews, of burying their dead in the ground. They detested the practice, prevailing at that time among the Romans, of burning the bodies of the dead, just as they abhorred the other religious rites and practices of the pagans. Minucius Felix, in the third century, says that the Christians execrate the funeral pile and condemn burial by fire. “We follow,” he says, “the ancient and better plan of burying in the ground.”

From the early writers and Fathers of the Church, we gather many reasons why the Christians preferred rather to bury the bodies of their dead in the ground than to burn them. Burning the dead was a pagan religious rite of the time, from which, as from all the religious rites of the pagans, the Christians wished to dissociate themselves.

One of the central truths of the Christian faith was the resurrection of the body. Cremation seemed to deny this doctrine. The Saviour was buried in a tomb, from which He rose triumphant over death. The disciple desired to be buried after the manner of his Master, hoping to rise again in the body, like his Master, from the grave. The immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body were two great beacon lights that illumined the darkness and the sufferings of the first Christians. Burning the body of the dead seemed to them a confession of the total annihilation of the whole man. It shocked their sense of reverence and affection for the dead, but more especially their religious sense.

And thus, from the very beginning of Christianity, burying the bodies of the dead in the ground became intimately associated with the Christian faith, and all the rites and ceremonies of the Church that accompany the burial of the dead, the prayers of the Missal and of the Ritual have grown up around and been developed according to the custom of burying the dead in the ground. When we have the bodies of our dead near us we are reminded to pray and offer sacrifice for them, we erect monuments over them that stimulate our piety and proclaim aloud our belief in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. The custom fosters reverence for the dead, whose bodies have been sanctified by so many Sacraments. It is not as repugnant to our natural instincts to allow our dead to return to dust by the slow processes of tender mother earth, as to violently burn and destroy them by fire.

These are but a few of the reasons why the Church, throughout the ages, has preferred to bury the bodies of her children in the earth rather than to destroy them by fire.

Cremation does not necessarily deny any truth of revelation. It does not necessarily imply a denial either of the immortality of the soul or of the resurrection of the body. Whether the body returns to dust slowly by the action of the forces of the earth, or quickly by the action of the fire, is, in itself, a matter of indifference.

The Church permits her missionaries, as in India, where cremation is the ordinary method of disposing of the bodies of the dead, to remain passive in cases where they know that the bodies of neophytes are to be burned. (Cong, de prop, fide, Sept. 27, 1884.) But circumstances may add a very definite character to something that is quite indifferent in itself. And this is the case with cremation, generally speaking.

The Church is cognizant of the fact, that the cremation of human bodies, today, is not only a departure from the time-honored and world-wide Christian custom of burying in the ground, but that it is meant, as a rule, to be a protest against the Christian faith. The promoters of cremation are endeavoring to rehabilitate the ancient pagan custom of disposing of the bodies of the dead in order to put an end to Christian cemeteries and Christian burial rites and practices, in order to destroy the powerful evidence they bear to the Christian faith, and the influence they exert in promoting Christian piety. By cremating the human body, they wish to signify the total annihilation of man by death. Thus cremation becomes, per accidens, a profession of heresy and an attack on the Christian faith. Hence the Church forbids it.

In particular circumstances, as, v. g., during an epidemic, the Church makes no objection to the burning of the human body. The only argument that can be urged in favor of cremation is the argument founded on the consideration of the public health. But the public health is already amply protected by the laws of the Church regarding the location of cemeteries and the manner of burying the body.

The Congregation of the Holy Office has repeatedly, in the last twenty-five years, issued decrees prohibiting the cremation of the bodies of the dead. The following is a summary of these decrees:

It is forbidden for Catholics to belong to any society or organization whose object is the cremation of the bodies of the dead; and if such society be in any way affiliated to the Masons, its members fall under the ban of excommunication.

It is forbidden for a Catholic to order his own body, or the body of any one else, burned; a Catholic may sometimes co-operate, materialiter, in cremating the bodies of the dead, either as officials or as workmen, if such co-operation is not desired precisely because the officials or workmen are Catholics, and as a sign of contempt for the Catholic faith and if the cremation contain no profession of Masonry.

It is not allowed to give the last Sacraments to a dying man or woman, if he or she insists that after death the body shall be cremated ; neither is it allowed to give the remains Christian burial, if it be known publicly that the deceased continued in this mind to the end of life.

It is not allowed to say Mass for such persons publicly or in the name of the Church, but Mass may be offered privately.

It is lawful to perform the last rites over the dead, either at their home or else in the Church, but not at the crematory, if it was not the will of the dead that his body be cremated, but the will of those in charge of the funeral, provided, of course, that all scandal be removed.

Again, it is permitted to give Christian burial to those who order that after their death their bodies shall be burned, provided they are ignorant of the Church’s prohibition; also to those who, after having made such provision in defiance of the Church’s laws, desired sincerely, before their death, to revoke the provision, but who for some valid reason were unable to do so.
This is a short synopsis of all the decrees concerning cremation, issued by the Holy Office in the last twenty-five years.

Mr. B., therefore, may not receive the Sacraments of the Church, as long as he continues in his resolve to have his body cremated, because he is in mortal sin, defying a grave law of the Church. And if it be known by the general public that he persevered to the end of his life in his resolve to have his body cremated, he can not receive Christian burial.