Does the Church permit cremation?



Dear Father: My wife and I are starting to think about our funeral arrangements. We would like our relatives to be as prepared as they can be. Does the Church allow cremation? What about donating our bodies to science? — Anonymous in Indiana

Dear Anonymous in Indiana: I commend you and your wife for thoughtfully preparing for the time when God will call you home. It’s the most important “now” of your life because it will lead you to the eternal “NOW.” That is why we ask Our Blessed Mother Mary to pray for us “now and at the hour of our death.”

My comments relate to two points: funeral arrangements and personal preparation for death.

Your funeral director can explain the many physical details of the funeral arrangements. Concerning your personal wishes, however, you should write them down clearly. For example, you could state that you want a wake time, then a funeral Mass, and a graveside service. You should then inform the appropriate people about this document and where it can be found.

Please know that the Church allows cremation as well as organ donations.

The bodies of the departed must be treated with love and respect. Their cremation is permitted provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body. (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 479; see also No. 476)

However, I believe that spreading the ashes over water or over a field disregards the dignity of the deceased. Thinking about one’s death can be discouraging and fearful, but it can also bring peace and serenity. Once we understand that we’re not alone in this final journey, we can take courage. It’s true that no one can replace us in our dying, but at that moment we are no longer in time as we know it, and Jesus is there. Please allow me to illustrate my point with two real-life stories.

A confrere, with whom I’d spent a few years in Mexico, became ill and was placed in a nursing home administered by a religious community. At first Leonard knew who I was when I visited him, but as time went by, he was no longer capable of recognizing me or anyone else. He couldn’t do anything for himself.

As his death drew near, some sisters offered to take turns sitting with him. The one who was with him at the end told me that he had been stretched out in bed, incapable of movement. Suddenly, to her surprise, he sat up straight, smiled, then lay back down, and died.

The smile, to me, could only mean that he saw Jesus telling him something such as, “OK, Leonard, it’s time to come home.”

In St. John’s Gospel Jesus says:

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”(John 14:2–3)

Jesus loves us and will be present to us at that critical moment. We are not alone.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux spent the last 18 months of her life with her body wracked by tuberculosis. When she died she had perhaps one-third of a lung still functioning. Added to this was the spiritual suffering of constant temptations against faith. Did God really exist? Is there a heaven? When the superior asked her if she was afraid to die, she replied: “How could I be afraid of someone I love so much?”

The sisters of her community all witnessed that at her death, Thérèse raised her eyes, and her face became transformed with an expression of radiant peace and sheer joy. Her face no longer reflected the pain and suffering she had endured. She looked beautiful.

We do not die alone. Jesus will be there for us, unless we reject him in our lifetime. So how can we prepare ourselves now for his coming? Should we start making special sacrifices or praying a lot more?

On this point St. Teresa of Kolkatacan guide us. She told her religious sisters that “we can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

So let us examine our prayer life. Whether we pray the rosary, or go to daily Mass, or say a few short prayers, we can do them with greater attention and love. It’s not the number of prayers we recite that matters, but rather the love we put into them.

In our relationship with others, we can always be more forgiving, more patient, more generous, and more understanding. There are no limits to love.

In conclusion, I would suggest that we ask the Lord to grant us the grace of entrusting our death to him. This grace doesn’t tell us when, where, or how it will come. It just assures us that when it does come, Jesus will be there to see us through. This confidence enables us to both live and die in peace and serenity.

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