Cremation may be a confusing issue for Catholics. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council touched all areas in the life of the Church, including funeral and burial rites. At one time, the Church prohibited cremation in most circumstances. Many Catholics may believe that the Church still forbids cremations, but this is no longer the case. The Church does, however, offer guidance to people considering cremation. It also has specific expectations for burial of cremated remains in a cemetery. While the Church still strongly recommends traditional full body burial, cremation is now an option to be chosen “for sufficient reason.” Studying the issue and understanding the teaching of the Church will help you make an informed decision.

When is cremation allowed?

While the Church still prefers full body burial or entombment, after the manner of Christ’s own burial, out of respect for the human body and belief in the Resurrection, cremation may be chosen in exceptional circumstances for “sufficient reason.” Here are some general considerations to keep in mind when facing the question of cremation:

  • Cremation may be requested for hygienic, economic or other reasons of a public or private nature. Some examples would be: transfer of the remains to a distant place, possible avoidance of considerable expense, national tradition or custom, a severe psychological or pathological fear of burial in the ground or a tomb.
  • The selection of cremation must have been the specific choice of the individual before death.
  • Cremation, however, may also be requested by the family of the deceased for what also might be determined good and/or pastoral reasons that can be accommodated. (An obvious instance would be the case of a family’s desire to transfer the remains to a distant place.)
  • According to current guidelines of the Archdiocese of Seattle, the priest, whose responsibility it is to perform the funeral, must determine that the reasons for choosing cremation are within those recognized by the Church.
  • When cremation is seen as an acceptable alternative to the normal manner of Catholic burial, the various elements of the funeral rite should be conducted in the usual way and, normally, with the body present.
  • The ordinary practice of Christian burial includes the Vigil Service, the celebration of the Funeral Mass at the Church, and the Rite of Committal at the cemetery.
  • Although all the elements of the Funeral Rite have importance, priority should be given to the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy with the body of the deceased present.
  • In March 1997 the Vatican granted the dioceses of the United States an indult – that is, an exception for pastoral reasons – to permit the cremated remains of the body to be present at the Funeral Mass. Guidelines in the Archdiocese of Seattle leave the decision to allow cremated remains at the Funeral Mass to the individual pastor.

Disposition of Cremated Remains

People do a lot of different things with cremated remains: some scatter the remains, some keep them at home, and some leave the remains at the crematorium or the funeral home. Some choose burial or inurnment in a cemetery.

In keeping with the sacred nature of the body, the Church asks that the cremated remains be treated in the same way as the full body. This includes burial of cremated remains in a cemetery. Scattering or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend are not the reverent disposition that the Church suggests.

The Catholic cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Seattle provide a variety of burial or inurnment options. We invite you to review the options available to you.

Burial or Inurnment Options

In keeping with Church teaching for burial of cremated remains in a cemetery, there are two options for the final disposition of cremated remains: in-ground burial and above-ground inurnment.

Ground Burial of Cremated Remains:

  • In an existing, full grave with arrangements for one or more cremation burials and suitable memorialization.
  • In a ground burial area designed with smaller graves to accommodate cremated remains and provision for either flush ground or above-ground memorialization.
  • In the same grave space as already used or reserved for another family member’s full burial, with observance of the cemetery’s regulation for memorialization in such instances.

Cremation Graves: Calvary Cemetery (shown) offers ground burial of cremated remains of the body throughout the cemetery in a variety of garden settings.

Above-Ground Inurnment of Cremated Remains in a Columbarium:

  • A columbarium with glass fronts – only located inside of a building.
  • A columbarium with a granite or marble front – located in both interior and exterior settings.
  • In some instances the cemetery may allow the inurnment of one or more cremated remains in a full mausoleum crypt.
  • Cremation Gardens.
  • Cremation Niches.

Cremation Garden: Cremation graves in beautifully landscaped sections. Burial services offered with dignity and respect. (Gethsemane and Holyrood shown here)

In making the selection of the cremation urn one should keep in mind the location selected – will it be seen or concealed? Does the urn space selected make provision for identification of the individual? Obviously, a glass fronted niche will not do so and therefore the memorialization or the identification will have to be included on the urn itself.

Pre-Planning and Cremation

Perhaps nowhere is the need for the advance planning of burial and funeral rites more important than when an individual has selected the cremation option. That pre-planning is critical for a number of reasons:

  • The opportunity to raise the question with other family members and discuss their feelings.
  • The need to research the impact of the cremation option on the celebration of the Church’s funeral rites.
  • The need to understand the various burial options.

What steps should you take?

  1. Research the question and understand the teachings of the Church.
  2. Discuss this matter with those closest to you so that they have the opportunity to share their feelings or concerns with you.
  3. Discuss the issue with your pastor.
  4. Consult with experienced professionals about arrangements that can be made in advance. Such selections would include choice of cemetery, decision about in-ground or above-ground inurnment of the cremated remains, selection of appropriate urn, and provision for payment in advance of all items that can be secured in this fashion.

Study and understand the variety of funeral rite options that are provided for the benefit of you and your survivors, rites that have traditionally included the Vigil, Celebration of the Eucharist with the body present, and a Committal Service. Take into account the time necessary to perform the cremation and insert that into the schedule of these celebrations. This will be especially important when the decision for cremation is based on a desire to be buried at considerable distance from the place of death.

Associated Catholic Cemeteries Can Help

The Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Seattle can help you and your family weigh your cremation options. Not all of the options for burial or inurnment of cremated remains are available at each cemetery, so part of your pre-planning will be to check with your preferred cemetery about your choices.

It is important to remember that the church still recommends burial or inurnment in a Catholic cemetery. Throughout the history of the Church, the Catholic cemetery has served as a visible sign of the faith community, attesting to the dignity of the baptized and the promise of the Resurrection.

Catholic cemeteries are sacred places where we come to be reminded of our history, to be immersed in our Catholic beliefs and practices, and to see our community bear witness to its faith even in the silence of the grave.