So, the church accepts cremation. Why? To put it bluntly, when we die, our bodies become subject to the laws of nature. The results of the process of cremation are the same result that time will basically have on us. With cremation, the primary concern is that our faith in the resurrection of the body is maintained.
How do we know that faith in the resurrection is maintained? This one is hard to judge in others; we can usually only tell about our own belief. A key is that we avoid saying or doing things that indicate that the deceased body is “just a shell.” We treat that body as sacred. Let’s look at some things to avoid, then, if we are going to go with cremation for our burial or the burial of a loved one:
3 things to avoid with Christian burial:
“It’s just a shell.” I hear this a lot, but as Catholics, we have to remember that it is not true. Our bodies are destined for great things in the kingdom of heaven – God made them sacred. Treat them that way.
Scattering of ashes: We need to avoid this. We must treat the deceased body as we would a non-cremated body. The ashes must be placed in a single container and buried in a columbarium or graveyard.
Wearing of the ashes: I know that some have taken the ashes of their beloved dead and placed them in amulets that they wear. Again, this is not the way we would treat the body of one who was not cremated, so we don’t do it to one who is.
So, what if we have done one or more of these things already? Keep in mind a really simple premise – God does not judge us for what we do not know. All of us have made mistakes in ignorance and without evil intent. I truly can’t imagine anyone, out of malice, treating the dead in a way the church tells us we shouldn’t. So, as God asks us to do every day of our lives, we learn from our errors and accept God’s wonderful, loving and freely given mercy.
In light of all this, then, how do we as a church justify “dividing up” the bodies of saints and sending them out as relics?
The first place to look is the Bible: There are a few references to God granting miracles through the relics of holy people. (cf II Kings 13:10-21;Acts 19:11-12) In II Kings, we hear about the bones of Elisha bringing a dead man to life and in Acts, a touch of Paul’s handkerchiefs healed the sick and drove out demons.
With that history, early Christians were quite fond of relics from the saints being held up to veneration. How did they justify what appeared to be the mutilation of a corpse? The idea is similar to that of organ donation, which the catechism praises – “Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity.” (CCC 2296)
As long as the sacredness of the body is preserved, we are allowed – and even encouraged – to give up our organs to save people’s lives.
In the same way, the bones of saints have many potential benefits for us – they link us to the church of all ages and the veneration of relics has the potential to draw us closer to Christ. Because of these benefits, and with a strong belief in the resurrection of the body, the church does allow us to “divide up” our beloved saints to help us grow in holiness.
I will close with a quote from St. Jerome:
“We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.” (St. Jerome, Letter to Riparius)
Enjoy another day in God’s
– Father Joseph Krupp