When non-Catholics come to a Mass of Christian Burial, they often comment that Catholic funerals are the most beautiful funerals. Perhaps they are moved by the ritual, or the vestments, or the emphasis on praying for the beloved deceased, or maybe even the music and the chant. When my mother died in September 2005, Fr. McLaughlin and Fr. White celebrated the funeral rites along with several priests, seminarians and faithful of the Diocese of Tyler. My non-Catholic family members said they had never before experienced such a moving tribute. Some even said they wanted to become Catholic. It was a powerful way for my sister and me and the whole family to say goodbye, to pray for the eternal rest of my mother’s soul, and to turn to God for consolation and guidance.
When I celebrate a Funeral Mass, my favorite part of the rite is the incensation of the casket (or urn) before the Final Commendation. It is a pastoral opportunity for me to explain the Biblical basis for using incense — not only as an action of adoration of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist — but as a sign that the body of the deceased person was sacred in this life. St. Paul teaches, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor 6:19). Because the body was redeemed by Christ at baptism, united to Him at holy Communion, and was a temple of the Holy Spirit in this life, we burn incense as a sign of our respect for the person’s mortal remains — that the person glorified God in his body while alive on this earth (see 1 Cor 6:20). Even though the soul of the person has departed this life, and our hope is that he or she is with the Lord, the mortal remains are still important because of our belief in the bodily resurrection at the end of time (CCC 992-1004).
Until 1963, the Catholic Church forbade cremation because of this doctrine. In the history of Christianity, pagans often cremated their dead as a sign of disdain for the Christian belief in the physical resurrection of the body. Today, the Church still recommends that the faithful be buried, but Catholics may be cremated so long as cremation does not demonstrate a denial of belief in the resurrection of the body (CCC 2301). The urn containing the ashes is to be treated with the same respect as a casket containing the corpse. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. While cremated remains may be buried in a grave, or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium, the practice of scattering ashes is strictly prohibited. To keep cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased lacks the reverent disposition the Church requires. In other words, the mantle over the fireplace is not a fitting place to keep someone’s cremains; he or she deserves better than that. We are called to respect the mortal remains and to commit them to a sacred place of rest — as a gesture of our love for the person, in honor of his or her memory, and as a sign of our patient expectation of the Second Coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess 4:16).
Reflection by Fr. Nolan Lowry, STL, paster of St. Leo the Great Parish in Centerville, Texas.