The Church and Cremation
Why was it forbidden?

Reprinted from The Remnant
May 15, 2007

From her very beginning, the Church condemned cremation and had only one funeral rite: burial.  This practice was based on religious reasons, and was in direct opposition to the practices of the pagan world.  Even when the pagans, as a sign of their contempt for the Christian rites, burned the bodies of the martyrs and violated the graves in Christian cemeteries, the Church held firmly to the rite of burial, and propagated it everywhere she went.  So much so, that by the end of the 4th century burial had replaced cremation in the whole Roman Empire.

When sometime after the year 1000 A.D. a practice bearing certain resemblances to cremation took hold in Europe, Pope Boniface VIII, in his letter Detestandae Feritatis (1299), condemned the practice as “abominable” in the sight of God and men and imposed automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication on all who chose such a procedure and on all who practiced it, and deprived of a Catholic funeral the body that had been submitted to this procedure.

For centuries after this there were no further abuses and the Church consequently had no need to speak out.

In the wake of the French Revolution (1789) there was launched a campaign in favor of cremation, which campaign was supported, if not planned and directed, by the Freemasons for openly anti-Christian reasons:  cremation of the body stood for the complete annihilation of the human person at death and thus, for “freedom” from the traditional teaching of the Church with regard to the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

Once again, the Church reacted immediately and decisively to defend the Christian tradition of burial.  Several condemnations were issued by the Holy Office – May 19, 1886; December 15,1886; July 27, 1892; August 3, 1897 – which all spoke of cremation as a “detestable abuse”, and imposed heavy penalties on all who chose to be cremated, as also on those who executed their wishes, forbidding them the sacraments, Christian burial, etc…

In 1917 the Code of Canon Law, signed by Pope Benedict XV, codified the Catholic tradition of burial and the severe sanctions incurred by those who broke with this tradition.  It prescribed burial, forbade cremation, and declared null and void the will of a Christian who asked to be cremated (Can. 1203, #1), depriving such a one of a Church burial and of all memorial Masses, even on the anniversary of Death (Can. 1241).

In 1926 an instruction from the Holy Office warned against a resurgence of the practice of cremation, confirmed the doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding burial and renewed the decrees of 1886.  One of these degrees – May 19, 1886 – had defined burial as “the constant practice, consecrated by the solemn rites of the Church.”

The first break with this uninterrupted tradition, which the Church had defended with severe sanction down through the centuries, came under Pope Paul VI, and was one of the first acts of his pontificate.  On July 15, 1963, an instruction from the Holy Office “while retaining these condemnations in cases where cremation was inspired by anti-Catholic or anti-religious motives, no longer requires that they be applied in other cases, presuming that recourse could be had to cremation for upright reasons, having nothing to do with anti-dogmatic or anti-Christian feeling”.

However, it is clear from the history of this question, that the “anti-dogmatic” or “anti-Christian” reasons for cremation in modern times were but secondary and transient motives for its ecclesiastical interdiction. At the time when Boniface VIII intervened with Destestandae Feritatis, the practice  resembling cremation to which the body of St. Louis had been subjected, did not spring from any anti-Christian mentality, but was had recourse to for “upright” reasons, namely, the desire to find a more practical way of transporting the mortal remains of important personages.  Nevertheless, the Church intervened with a rigorous reminder of her condemnation of cremation.  Furthermore, the third decree from the Holy Office, July 27, 1892, against the cremationist campaign of the Freemasons, declared “…unworthy of the Last Sacraments those who arrange for the cremation of their body for irreligious reasons, as well as those who do so for reasons of another order”.

The principal and enduring reasons for which the Church has always condemned cremation are the following:

1. Dogmatic

a)         Burial is more in line with the dogma of the resurrection of the body than is cremation.  By the word “dormition”, the Church expresses the truth that death is only the temporary annihilation of the body, and the cemetery is the holy ground where she lays the bodies of the faithful departed, like mortal seeds that will grow up into immortality.” ”…sown in corruption, it will rise in incorruption.” (1 Cor.Ch. 15: 42)

b)     Burial, unlike cremation, expresses the mystical union of the Christian with Christ, making him like his Head even in the grave,  “the first fruits of them that sleep” (ICor., Ch 15 v. 29), like Him Whose Body was laid in the sepulcher and not cremated.

c)     Burial shows more respect for the human body than does its violent destruction by fire.  The Church teaches that such respect is due to the human body, which was created by God in a very special way (Gen. Ch. 1 v. 26), which is an essential component of the human person, and which was assumed by the Divine Word in order to accomplish the redemption and to be seated at the right hand of the Father; this body which is sanctified by baptism, nourished by the Eucharist, vivified by a soul in the state of grace, and destined for resurrection.

 2. Moral

a)   Burial, which allows nature to pursue its slow and hidden work of destruction, either in the earth or in the tomb, shows more respect for the higher feelings of men than does cremation.  Cremation bespeaks a practical utilitarianism, while burial takes into account the affection that men have for the mortal remains of their loved ones, their natural inclination to show respect for the dead and also the consequent repugnance they feel for cremation.

b)  Again, cremation, unlike burial, could make it impossible to prove a crime or, worse still, to clear an innocent person of a false accusation.

3 Traditional

Everywhere that Christianity took root, the practice of burial took root with it.  It would be difficult to explain this fact which, in so many places, was in direct opposition to local custom and often resulted in persecution for the Christians and profanations of their cemeteries, except by a formal law of the early Church. We can only conclude with St. Augustine that this universal practice was  a law that dated back to the Apostles themselves and that it was they who established it in the Church from its very beginning.

Even if it is true that burial is not prescribed by the Law of God, but falls under Church law, it is equally true that it is not, as Paul VI  saw it, a simple administrative provision, dictated by circumstances of a transitory nature and subject to cancellation when no longer opportune.  On the contrary, it is a liturgical rite, consecrated by tradition, and based on motives of a dogmatic and moral nature which remain valid, regardless of circumstances and the spirit behind the preference for cremation.

The Instruction on cremation was one of the first acts of Pope Paul VI, and it expressed the whole spirit and practice of disdain for Tradition which was to characterize his pontificate. After this first  bastion, other far more important ones, erected by the Church to protect Her divine and ecclesial Tradition, fell under the blows of his unconscious (let us hope) want of reverence for the legacy of the past.

What should one do?  In the present storm, which is ripping the Church apart, and which unfortunately has its origins in high places, it is imperative that every Catholic get to know the sacred Traditions of the Church, especially  divinely inspired apostolic Tradition, in order to love it, defend it and keep it.

The Church of Christ, supernatural in origin and protected by divine, indefectible assistance, though shaken, though abused and betrayed by Her priests, can never lose the memory of Her Tradition and, sooner or later – this is of Faith – will reaffirm its rights, in the process allowing to disintegrate all that has been imposed upon Her by Her unfaithful ministers.

It is in order to hasten this happy day, as well as to ensure their salvation, that all faithful members of the Church and those who, at least, wish to be such, must go to the sources of Tradition, that is, to the teachings of the Magisterium – implicit, explicit and tacit – of the pre-conciliar Church (encyclicals, liturgy, treatises, catechisms, lives and writings of the saints, etc.), and there nourish their minds and spirits.  It is from cells that have remained in good health, or that have recovered their health, that God’s Holy Church will wax strong again.

All of which includes saying “No” to cremation.

(Summary and translation of an article in Courrier de Rome April 1990.  Translated by Sr. Maureen Peckham RSC)