What We Believe...Why We Believe
The Catholic Church forbid cremation up until 1963. Catholic belief in the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit — as well as faith in the resurrection of the body — places a strong preference for entombing or burying the body intact. In addition, the Catholic Church took the line from Genesis (3:19) — "dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" — as a literal instruction for most of its history, forbidding Catholics to be cremated and requiring that they be buried or entombed when they died.
The Church dropped its prohibition of cremation in 1963. It now permits cremation only if that choice is not a reflection of doubt or disbelief about Catholic teachings about death, resurrection, and rebirth to eternal life.
After cremation was allowed, the Church still required that cremation be carried out only after the actual body was present at the funeral Mass. Ashes were not allowed to substitute for the body at the funeral Mass. This prohibition also sprang from the Church's reverence for the body which carried the oils from Baptism, Confirmation, and possibly the Sacrament of the Sick. The prayers of the funeral Mass confirm this respect for the body.
However, in 1997, the Church recognized the need of loved ones of those who had chosen cremation to have a tangible presence of the deceased during their funeral Mass, and lifted the ban on having ashes present during the service — that cremated remains could be present at a funeral Mass.
Cremation is the process of reducing a body to bone fragments through the application of intense heat. The bone fragments are then pulverized, placed in a container and returned to the family. Regarding its morality, the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes a single sentence to cremation: “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (no. 2301).
In biblical times fire was often regarded as symbolic of the divine presence, so it was appropriate to feature fire in sacred ceremonies. God was represented by a flaming torch in an encounter with Abraham, and at Mt. Sinai 'the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire' (Exod. 24:17). Since fire represents God, cremation can be a symbol of the believer entering into the presence of God. There are other biblical occurrences of people being burned.
Ultimately, there is no difference between cremation and burying. When the body is buried, given enough time, it will completely disintegrate. So, cremation and burying ultimately lead to the same physical condition of complete disintegration. In the resurrection, our infinitely powerful God who knows all things, will be able to produce our resurrected bodies.There is nothing to prevent God from accomplishing His promises to raise us.
"And Joshua said, 'Why have you troubled us? The LORD will trouble you this day.' And all Israel stoned them
with stones; and they burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones."
"All the valiant men rose and walked all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of
Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh, and burned them there."
"And all the priests of the high places who were there he slaughtered on the altars and burned human bones on
them; then he returned to Jerusalem."