Priest: Burials best but no ban on cremation

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MANILA, Aug. 24, 2015—Amid the increasing tendency of Filipinos to choose cremation over the traditional Christian practice of burying dead bodies, a Canon Law expert has recently made clear that the Catholic Church “earnestly recommends burial” but also “allows cremation without any reticence.”

Fr. Jaime B. Achacoso, executive secretary of the Canon Law Society of the Philippines (CLSP) (Photo taken from Achacoso's Facebook account)

Fr. Jaime B. Achacoso, executive secretary of the Canon Law Society of the Philippines (CLSP), said that at present, the Church does not forbid cremation, but liturgical guidelines on its practice have been explicitly laid out by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).

“The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burying the bodies of the dead be observed; it does not, however, forbid cremation unless it has been chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching,” he explained, referring to Can. 1176, §3 of the actual Code of Canon Law.

Cremation as a prohibited practice

According to Achacoso, the old Code of Canon Law of 1917 expressly prohibited the practice of cremating cadavers due to the belief from the early days of Christianity that “cremation of cadavers was considered anti-Christian, while inhumation (or burial in the earth) was deemed as the normal Christian practice.”

He added that the reason for this Christian tradition in favor of burial stems from the latter’s strong religious symbolism, made more evident by its concordance with Sacred Scripture and its long practice in the Christian community.

“The paschal meaning of Christian death—faith in the resurrection of the body: that one day all the saints will rise from the dead for eternal glory, as Jesus Christ has risen from the dead—is better expressed with the burial of the cadaver,” Achacoso said.

“Burying the dead—it was argued—follows ‘the example of Christ’s own will to be buried’,” he added.

The priest also said those who have been cremated or those who had willed themselves to be cremated in the early days of Christianity had been denied the chance of getting an ecclesiastical funeral.

Cremation as an accepted option

The priest said that the present Code of Canon Law does not require any special reason for the choice of cremation, which makes its practice more practical for a variety of reasons—“both public and private nature, of hygiene, of economics, etc.—that have nothing to do with religion.”

“For such reasons, as early as 1963 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had already introduced the new criterion of accepting cremation as an option, considering that it was neither bad in itself, nor contradictory to Christian doctrine, nor against religion—as previously seen,” Achacoso said.

“In the same vein, those who chose cremation for themselves were no longer denied the sacraments and—in its time—a Christian funeral,” he added.

According to him, the only limitation to the acceptance of cremation is that the reason for choosing it should “not stem from ‘a denial of Christian dogmas, the animosity of a secret society, or hatred of the Catholic religion and the Church’…or for any other reasons opposed to the Christian faith.”

Liturgical guidelines

  • Achacoso noted certain liturgical guidelines that must be considered when cremating remains of the dead, as issued by the CBCP:Cremation may take place after or before the funeral Mass.
  • When cremation is held after the funeral Mass, the rite of final commendation and committal concludes the Mass. While cremation is taking place (a process that may take several hours), the family and friends of the deceased are encouraged to gather in prayer. A liturgy of the Word may be celebrated or devotional prayers like the holy rosary may be said. After cremation, the ashes are placed in a worthy urn and carried reverently to the place of burial.
  • When cremation precedes the funeral Mass, the rite of final commendation and committal may be performed in the crematorium chapel before cremation. After cremation the funeral Mass may be celebrated in the presence of the cremated remains. If funeral Mass is not celebrated, the funeral liturgy is held in the presence of the remains. The rite of final commendation and committal concludes the Mass or the funeral liturgy. If the rite has not taken place before cremation. Adaptations such as “remains” in place of “body” are made in the liturgical formularies.
  • The cremated remains should be buried in a grave, mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering the ashes in the sea or from the air is not in keeping with the Church’s norm regarding the proper disposal of the remains of the dead. Likewise the urn should not be kept permanently at home or family altar. If there is to be a delay in the proper disposal of the ashes, these may be kept temporarily in an appropriate place.
  • For the sake of reverence for the remains of the dead, it is recommended that in churches or chapels, a worthy container be provided in which the urn is placed during the liturgical celebration.
  • Columbaria should not be constructed in the main body of the church, but in a separate chapel adjacent to the church or in a crypt.

The priest also noted that there are no special conditions that differentiate cremation on the remains of sacred ministers. However, the particular law governing those belonging to certain circumscriptions or institutes of consecrated life may note certain guidelines and prohibitions applicable to their beliefs. (Jennifer M. Orillaza/ CBCP News)

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