Body or ashes at the funeral?

Charles 11 Comments

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

As a blogger, I may seem as impervious to the ways of secular funerals as a civil celebrant is to the customs of Catholicism. But as a reader, I’ve mulled over ideas presented here to find they’ve struck a chord. While unprejudiced readers will already realise I value choice, whether religious or non-religious, it’s perhaps less obvious I can hold more than an ‘each to their own’ attitude, that instead of simply ‘agreeing to differ’, I sometimes ‘agree to agree’.

Poppy Mardall’s ‘Free yourself and take your time’ is a recent example of a blog that’s provided food for thought—for which I’m grateful. Discussing the service of her company, Poppy’s Funerals, she wrote that, after a simple cremation, ‘we then deliver the ashes to the family so they can hold the funeral ceremony, celebration of life or memorial with the ashes wherever, whenever and however they want’. 

As someone who reveres Church teaching, who tries (but sometimes fails) to obey the fundamentals of the faith, a funeral without the body is not something to be embraced lightly.

The Order of Christian Funerals directly links funerals to the Baptism and Confirmation journey: ‘This is the body once washed in Baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the Bread of Life’. It goes on to say ‘the human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it is hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body. Thus, the Church’s reverence and care for the body grows out of a reverence and concern for the person whom the Church now commends to the care of God.’

Many here, of course, won’t give a fig about the granting of Church permission for steps taken at funerals. A non-Catholic has no need to consult an oracle which he/she doesn’t hold as a theological authority, and no doubt finds anathema such willing resignation of independence. As a Catholic though, I felt the need to check with doctrinal teaching to see if my sympathy with the option of a funeral without the body was okay or an error.

Until just 50 years ago, the Church forbad cremation due to the belief in the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. In 1963, she waived this law, an example of how rituals of the Church adapt to the cultural needs of members as long as this doesn’t sacrifice basic beliefs. The Church continues to prefer and encourage the faithful to bury the dead, but supports the faithful in honouring the life of the departed in this different way. She accepts ‘one hat doesn’t necessarily fit all’, and this alternative isn’t a rejection of core values.

When the Church accepted cremations, she initially still required they be carried out only after the actual body was present at the funeral Mass. Ashes were not allowed in church as substitute for the body due to reverence for the body which carried the oils from Baptism and Confirmation.

However, in 1997, the Church recognised the need of relatives of those who had chosen cremation to have a tangible presence of the deceased during a post-cremation funeral Mass. She lifted the ban on having ashes present during the service.

This lenience was triggered by cases such as a person who dies suddenly a long way from home, and the family can’t afford to repatriate the body. The body is then cremated near the location of death, and the urn of ashes transported home more affordably. It then seemed insensitive to refuse those mourners a funeral mass with the ashes present. A memorial mass may be a comfort but some feel there’s something missing at the funeral mass without the presence of deceased in at least some form.

Despite condoning cremations and funeral masses with ashes—although still preferring burial of the body—the Church continues to forbid the faithful from scattering cremains or displaying them at home, insisting they be buried within an urn in a cemetery.

Footnote: Rome had to make minor revisions to liturgy to accommodate the new choices. The Order of Christian Funerals prescribes three separate rites to celebrate the journey from this life to the next, and to help mourners through this period of separation and letting go. The ideal sequence of this trio of rites is vigil (short prayer service at the bedside or funeral home), funeral mass (full mass in church), committal (short prayer service at the graveside or crematorium). Cremation before the funeral requires the vigil, committal (of sorts), funeral mass with urn of cremains present instead of body in coffin, committal proper (in cemetery). Prayers, therefore, no longer make specific reference to the body that was washed in Baptism, but to ‘earthly remains’. 


  1. Charles

    Very interesting. I think it is fascinating how the Church has changed is thinking and policies regarding cremation. If you realize the very long history of the Church, the change is quite a recent one. Allowing the families to have a funeral Mass after cremation would be extremely comforting for most families, as you mentioned. Also, it was an interesting detail about how the Church forbidding the display or scattering of the ashes while supporting the burial of them. Thanks for sharing this knowledge! It was an knowledge-gaining read.

  2. Charles

    Richard, to your knowledge, and relating to a post-cremation mass, is this generally allowed in any circumstance, or do there have to be extenuating factors (such as a death overseas etc)?

    Also, what might be the outcome where a body has been the subject of full body donation to medical science purposes, and where does the RC Church stand on that whole topic of donation?


  3. Charles

    Really interesting post Richard. The ‘reverence and care’ the church brings to the bodies of the people it is commending is an object lesson. You won’t, however, be surprised to hear that as a secularist I find some of the distinctions made about scattering and burying a little too nice for my taste. From the outside it looks as though the church has swallowed the camel and is straining at gnats.

    I mistrust the certainty the church brings to these distinctions and judgements. I can see that they are trying to attach cause and affect to our actions here on earth according to their view of the spiritual universe we occupy, but I am very doubtful about our (their) understanding and knowledge. There’s a passage in CS Lewis’ Perelandra where he describes his hero climbing a cliff face in pitch darkness. Ransom (the hero’s name),working without any sense of perspective and proportion has to work by touch alone. It made, Lewis says, ‘crazy climbing. Doubtless if anyone had seen him he would have appeared at one moment to take mad risks and at another to indulge in excessive caution”. I think we are all – religions included – climbing this cliff in the dark. The principle that our lives are sacred to each other is imperishable, after that, though, we reach out for the next handhold as best we can. Though we do, of course, have love and our own best instincts to guide us.

    1. Charles

      This is a great post Richard. But it does grate that such a paternalistic and misogynistic organisation is referred to as ‘She’.

    2. Charles

      “She” is used because the church is presented in scripture as the bride of Christ. The noun ekklesia is feminine in Ancient Greek.

  4. Charles

    Vale, as I’m sure you know, Catholicism is really not my thing (neither is Christianity in any normally understood sense for that matter) but the internal logic is sound. The body, even after death, has a sacredness and has a relationship to God, albeit a different one to that of a living body. For some, of course, there is also the issue of resurrection. It is entirely reasonable, if the axioms of Catholicism are accepted (and it will be totally unreasonable to anyone who does not accept these axioms) that the body, even after cremation should remain intact and in a single, identifyable place. if the whole ystem is rejected then this will, no doubt, appear silly, but if, as I say, you start by accepting a particular starting point then the argument is entirely sound. I do not see the contradiction here.
    Right, I have now officially been conscious for far too long. I’m off to bed (this having a week off business is surprisingly tiring!)

  5. Charles

    Seems to me the whole gender pronoun thing is a bit fraught. Rationally, we shouldn’t call sailing boats “she,” I suppose. But tradition tugs at the heartstrings here, when you see a beautiful sailing ship beating to windward on a breezy, sunny day.

    There is such a thing as sniffy liberal orthodoxy, as well as unpalatable religious orthodoxy! Logically, Jenny and Judith seem correct to me, and it’s surely up to believers whether or not they call the church “she.” I might consider the RC faith to be paternalistic, archaic, etc etc. All I’m saying is that it’s not for me. Neither are aubergines. So…what?

    Now, if we are talking about the social policies of faith organisations, that’s a different matter, then we can and should roll up our sleeves and set to. “By their fruits shall ye know them.”

    Interesting and useful post.

  6. Charles

    I’m appreciating the reasoned and amicable tone of this thread as misunderstandings over faith so often sadly lead to tensions.

    Mother Church is made up of all Catholics, alive and dead: male clergy, male and female religious, male and female congregations past and present, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and male and female saints.

    Belinda, I’m glad this post is largely about agreement on ashes at the funeral, but I must respectfully disagree the Church is ‘misogynistic’. While male-only clergy are married to the Bride of Christ and are Persona Christi at the altar, women play an enormous role in the Church, and are, of course, loved as equals.

    You may have had in mind the feminist view of those who oppose abortion, a controversial subject I most reluctantly broach here. But briefly, even when people part ways on this sanctity of life issue, we should remember all sides are motivated by love, not misogyny. We just come at it from conflicting standpoints, in one side’s case this being love for the unborn, both male and female.

    Nick, to answer your two questions:
    I believe the faithful must ask permission from their diocesan bishop for a post-cremation funeral, and their cases are reviewed case by case.

    The Church has long supported the donation of bodies for scientific research and educational purposes as long as the bodies are treated with dignity and are not displayed for entertainment purposes or for profit alone. Science and technology are ordered to man and not the other way around.

    Thanks all.

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