Each year, more and more people choose to be cremated. In 2020, the cremation rate in the United States was 56 percent and 35 percent in Kentucky. Our Bluegrass State is still very traditional when it comes to burial practices, but that is rapidly changing. With that rapid change also comes a wide range of new practices regarding how families handle the final disposition of the cremated remains of their loved ones.
Cremation gives families more options to customize and personalize and allows them to become more “creative” when planning the final disposition of the cremated remains of their loved ones. Some examples of practices that show insufficient respect for the ashes of the dead body include scattering the cremated remains, keeping the cremated remains at home, dividing the cremated remains and sharing them with family members and friends, turning the cremated remains into jewelry (pendants, rings, bracelets, etc.), commingling cremated remains of more than one person, etc. The rule of thumb is not to do to the cremated remains of a person what we would not do to the full body of that person.
The Holy See has allowed cremation since 1963. As stated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, “the Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed; nevertheless, the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.”
Regardless of the form of the remains, the Church expects those who have been baptized as Catholics to take full advantage of the Order of Christian Funerals. These rites include prayers at the time of death and thereafter, a wake service allowing time for prayers and support, a Mass of Christian Burial celebrated for both the living and the dead, and burial in a Catholic Cemetery as the final resting place for those who have fallen asleep in Christ. Our Archdiocesan Catholic Cemeteries welcome persons of other faith traditions; those who were together in life should not be separated in death.
When cremation is chosen, the Church recommends that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites. The presence of the human body better expresses the values that the Church affirms in the funeral rites. Nevertheless, the Holy See has given the bishop of each diocese the authority to allow the celebration of a funeral liturgy in the presence of the cremated remains of the body.
The Catholic Church recognizes the dignity and sacredness of the human body and emphasizes that cremated remains should be treated with the same amount of respect that is given to the human body from which they came. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the cremated remains of the person, the proper care in transporting them, and their final disposition in consecrated ground, that is buried in a grave or inurned in a columbarium. Appropriate memorialization is recommended.
Burial in a Catholic Cemetery is a statement of continued belief in everlasting life, even in death. Let’s work together to assure the continuation of the sacred values and commitments that the Church has made to its faithful.
Javier Fajardo is Executive Director of Catholic Cemeteries in the Archdiocese of Louisville.