Burial is a rite that the Lord wanted for Himself and for us also.
"With Him we are buried in death, and with Him we shall rise"
(St. Paul). Nowadays cremation —or incineration —of the bodies of
the deceased is spoken of favorably. Yet the Church has always
resolutely opposed this practice. We should examine why this has
been so, especially since the opposition of the Conciliar Church
is no longer so firm. What are we to think?
THE MIND OF THE CHURCH
The first reflex of Catholics must be to
consult the Church’s teaching and discipline. The Church has
pronounced precisely and firmly on this subject, proving that she
indeed considers it to be important. Leo XIII decreed on Dec. 15,
1886, that if someone has made a public request to be cremated and
dies without retracting this culpable act, it is forbidden to give
him an ecclesiastical funeral and burial.
The 1917 Code of Canon Law incorporated
this law and specified that if someone has prescribed that his
body be cremated it is not lawful to execute his will. If it is
inserted in a contract, a will, or any act, it must be held as
naught (canon 1203, §2).
Cremation is a human act, and like every human
act, it is governed by principles, it follows laws. It is a way of
treating the end of human life which molds mores and ideas. There
is, indeed, a direct link between the respects —the cultus
—paid to the dead by means of funerary rites and the philosophical
and religious ideas that inform them. Man has not been mistaken
about this, and the history of these rites, even among the pagans,
Greek and Roman Antiquity
As far back in time as one can go, one sees
that the ancients "envisaged death, not as the dissolution of
being, but as a simple change of life." 1 The soul
was believed to dwell close to men, and to continue to live
underground; it remained somehow associated with the body. The
rites of sepulture which have endured through the centuries, even
when beliefs have changed, are the best testimony. The living
would speak to the dead: "Be well. May the earth lie light upon
you." Since the deceased continued to live, it was necessary
to supply him with the necessaries of life: clothing, jars,
weapons, food and drink. Not only on the day of the burial, but
also on fixed days of the year, food was brought. A Latin author,
Lucian, explained: "A dead person to whom nothing is offered is
condemned to perpetual hunger."
That practice was still
observed by the pagans at the beginning of the Christian era.
Moreover, the soul continued to live, but in a fixed place; it was
thus necessary for the body to which it remained attached to be
covered by earth. The soul that had no tomb had no abode: it
remained wandering, unhappy, and often maleficent. The privation
of food had the same effect. Like food, interment was necessary to
For the same reason it was also necessary to
perform all the prescribed rites and pronounce the set formulae.
That is why the Athenians put to death some generals who, after a
victory at sea, had neglected to bring back to land the dead so
that they could be buried. Privation of sepulcher and funerary
rites was a punishment that the law inflicted on great criminals,
thereby sentencing the condemned soul to a quasi-eternal torment.
That is why Antigone, in the play by Sophocles, prefers to die
rather than leave her brother without burial for, she says,
sepulture is a law of the gods, which no human has the right to
Meanwhile, as philosophical and religious thought
developed, the abode of the dead became a subterranean region,
Hades, where the souls were all gathered together and where
punishments and rewards were distributed. In Homer, the soul’s
existence after death is reduced to a mere image, an impalpable
shadow, which yet was the physical and moral portrait of the
The rite of cremation was then introduced in order to
hasten, it is conjectured, the passage of the soul totally
separated from the body to this state. The Iliad and the
Odyssey give evidence of this practice. Rome experienced the
same evolution, especially towards the end of the Republic and
under the Empire. Nonetheless, as Fustel de Coulanges remarks, the
rites remained unchanged.2 Moreover, the souls of the
dead, called manes, received almost divine worship:
"Render to the gods-manes that which is their due,"
said Cicero, "they are men who have departed this life; hold
them for divine." 3 They had their altar, and their
aid was invoked.
It has been remarked how much the ancient Greek
and Roman customs resemble those well known of the Egyptians.
Among the Japanese, Shintoism had the same practices as the
Romans, but it emphasized the dependency of the living on the
dead. When a young man would go and study in Europe, he would take
leave of his ancestors by visiting their tomb.4
The French Revolution and Its Consequences
Cremation did not reappear until the French
Revolution. Even so, it was not widely accepted. It did not begin
to find acceptance until the second half of the 19th century under
the impetus of Freemasonry, which made use of Societies for the
Propagation of Cremation. The propaganda was animated by a
materialist, utilitarian philosophy as these excerpts show.
I have found nothing simpler than to put bodies
in a gas still, and to distill them till reduced to ashes, and I
added that the gas generated by this distillation could be used
Given the number of deaths in the city of
London, at the end of each year it would be possible to collect
200,000 pounds of bones from crematoria with which to fertilize
FROM RITES TO BELIEFS
The available evidence from the funerary
customs of Greco-Roman antiquity manifests two main
characteristics: certitude of the soul’s immortality, and filial
piety elicited by this reality.
Immortality of the soul
Their belief in the soul’s immortality comes
not from the supernatural belief which is part of the mysteries of
the Faith on the nature of the great beyond, but from naturally
acquired knowledge that the soul is a spirit that cannot die. On
this topic we can make our own the conclusion of Fustel de
Perhaps it was at the sight of death that man
had for the first time the idea of the supernatural, and that he
desired to hope beyond what he saw. Death was the first mystery.
It lifted his mind from the visible to the invisible, from the
transitory to the eternal, from the human to the divine.7
Of course, in itself, the death of the body
only leads to reflection on the immortality of the soul, but these
are the natural mysteries that God uses, with His grace, to begin
to lead men into the consideration, not only of the immortal, but
of the supernatural.
As the word indicates (cultus comes from
the Latin colere, which means "to honor" and which gives
cultum, which means "honor"), by the cult of the dead, one
honors those from whom one possesses life; one pays respect to
those to whom one is beholden. Gratitude is due them, whether they
be our parents from whom we have received life and all the other
benefits; the ancients, for their wisdom; the great men, for their
benefactions. It was in this sense that the heroes and great men
were placed in the ranks of the gods. The Greeks and the Romans
were not so unintelligent as to consider as gods those who had
undergone death, but they exalted to the ranks of the gods all
those from whom blessings came to men. This piety has two
consequences. On the one hand, because the soul of the deceased
has not disappeared, the survivors remain linked to him, and so
they must help him as much as possible. On the other, the
cultus of the dead is important for the living themselves.
For, if the one who is honored derives something from it during
his lifetime, he derives nothing from it after his death. But the
living draw something from it: from the recognition of what they
have received arises a certain humility.
For Christians, a third reality is involved.
The body of the deceased Christian was a temple of the Holy Ghost.
Just as during Mass, the incensing which is due to God alone is
directed to the faithful because they are temples of the Holy
Ghost, so also the bodies of the saints, and particularly of
martyrs, are venerated because of what the Holy Ghost has
accomplished in them, as in the bodies of all Christians.
LEX ORANDI, LEX CREDENDI
While beliefs and ideas change more rapidly
than exterior practices and rites, it cannot be denied that the
changing of exterior rites will influence little by little the
ideas of those who practice them. The promoters of cremation in
the 19th century understood this well. Msgr. Chollet, Archbishop
of Cambrai, made known a circular put out by the Freemasons:
The Roman Church has issued a challenge by
condemning cremation. The Freemasons should employ every means to
spread the usage of cremation. The Church, by forbidding the
burning of corpses seeks to maintain its rights over the living
and the dead, over consciences and bodies, and seeks to conserve
in the masses of the people the old beliefs, today dispelled by
the light of science, extending even to the spiritual soul and the
It is in light of this paragraph that the
arguments that follow should be weighed. The funerary rites of
pagan antiquity that we have sketched or the Catholic ceremonies
of interment show us that death does not entail a definitive,
absolute destruction. What is more, the word cemetery comes
from the Greek meaning dormitory. In the cemetery souls
rest, certainly in a special kind of sleep, but in the expectation
of something or of an awakening to another life. Cremation
suppresses the symbolism of the rites and the cemetery and the
truth which they embody. The interred body is like the grain of
wheat fallen in the ground which decomposes: from that, by the
mysterious action of the divine, almighty power, life will spring
forth. But the burned corpse is like the grain that is cooked or
burnt. It will never give birth to new life. It is burnt, there is
nothing more to hope for. A body reduced to ashes can await
nothing more. The destruction appears definitive.
The switch from the expressive symbolism of
Catholic ceremonies to the negative symbolism of cremation is not
neutral. For centuries these ceremonies have molded human beliefs
about the afterlife. They cannot be suppressed without
consequences. The shift from one symbolism to the other affects
the mind and orientates it towards the negation of life after
death. Man would be nothing but a handful of dust, a speck among
others.... That is why the repositories of the cremated ashes are
called "memorial gardens," for keeping the memory of something
gone forever, which will never return. It will only continue to
exist in the "hearts of the living," and not in a real life
BURIED WITH JESUS
St. Paul teaches, and the Church reminds us of
it at the Paschal Vigil, that we are buried with Jesus in death
and with Him we arise. That is the meaning of baptism, which, a
sacrament, is a sign. If the symbol is lost, the sacrament will
also lose little by little, its worth. The ancient pagan rites,
and even more so the Catholic ceremonies, demonstrate a great
respect towards the body of the deceased. The respect linked to
interment is manifested by the adorned tomb at which people come
to pray. The respect paid to the dead through the body is directed
to the deceased person himself. Interment has two aspects:
It involves a hidden destruction in which
everything occurs underground. A veil is drawn over the
ghastliness of decomposition and the return to dust;
It is progressive, following the laws of
nature which come from God and are good in themselves.
Cremation, on the contrary, is visible. One can
watch and see the result in the ashes which are given back to the
bereaved. The reality of the destruction is cruelly placed before
the mourners’ eyes. Moreover, it is brutal, as if the fire were
doing violence to the body, and, through the body it consumes, to
the spouse, children, relatives, and friends.
ACCEPTANCE OF PUNISHMENT
According to the Catholic Faith, death is a
sanction inflicted by God to punish sin. "Thou art dust, and
unto dust thou shalt return." God had said to Adam and Eve
that if they disobeyed, they would be punished by death. Man must
humbly recognize that God is the master of all things, and submit
to the sentence. God in His wisdom imposes this chastisement; man
in humility and trust must bow to this return to dust. By
interment, this sentence is carried out as God wills it: man
suffers in his body the return to dust. Sometimes, to honor the
saints, God delivers them from this misery. Their bodies are
preserved incorrupt. By cremation, on the contrary, the deceased
orders that his body become not dust, but ashes. It is he himself
who imposes this destruction, not God. He does not bow, he
commands. Whether one will or no, this manner of acting leads to
the thought that man does not undergo the sentence imposed by God;
he escapes God’s authority and the duty to submit to Him.
HUMILITY OR RIDICULOUS PRIDE
By forbidding the cremation of bodies, the
Church affirms her rights over the living and the dead. But today
man wants to be the absolute master. He arrogates the right to
extinguish life scarcely begun, and when he wishes, to interrupt
the life coming to an end. Likewise, he also want the power to
destroy his body according to his fashion. Man wants to be his own
master, not only until death, but even after death. But, lacking
the power to give life, not even the power to prevent its
destruction, there only remains to him to show his pretended
power, to go even further in destruction.
Unfortunately, in 1963, the Roman authorities
allowed cremation without really approving it (always this
ambiguity present in the Vatican II documents). The cremation
societies do not fail to let it be known. It was inserted in the
1983 Code of Canon Law. Rome sets a few limits: cremation
"must not be desired as negation of Christian dogmas in a
sectarian spirit, out of hatred of the Catholic religion or of the
Church." They open the door and pretend to close it. Where is
the fallaciousness of such reasoning? It is in this: by this
reservation, the modernists let one believe that the only problem
with cremation is the negation of Christian dogmas (the dogmas of
eternal life and of the resurrection of the body) while we have
seen that it involves much more. It is a whole complex of
convictions and Christian practices the Church thereby abandons by
the change, whereas until now she had watched most jealously to
guard them. The Freemasons ask for nothing more, at least for the
time being. But it will be objected, cremation is of itself
neutral. No, nothing is neutral in this life, nothing exists "of
itself," if only because of the reasons for which we act. A human
act without motive does not exist. But to accept cremation is to
reject interment. What reason, indeed, what reason can justify the
abandonment of principle? It is argued that in case of necessity
it would be legitimate. Indeed, it must be conceded that interment
is one of these practices which allow exceptions, unlike adultery
or abortion. But who can fail to see, first, that the exceptions
are by their very nature exceptional and do not derogate from the
ordinary course fixed by the wisdom of God, except for rare and
particular motives that also respond to the superior wisdom of
God. Advocating its use in the case of epidemics has no cogency,
because in such cases the usage of quick lime has always been
known and preferred. The case made for cremation because of lack
of space is no more impelling, for it is incumbent on the living
to set aside a place suitable for the cultus of the dead, just as
they find the necessary space for temples–or for recreation.
A writer has summed up in one line the
principle the guides us: "The failure to live as one thinks
leads to thinking according as one lives. The failure to pray in
accord with one’s beliefs leads to believing according as one
prays." The failure to bury the dead in accord with one’s
beliefs will lead to believing in accord with the new rites.
Cremation carries with it, because of its symbolism, a different
way of thinking: man, master of his fate even after death; man,
with no immortal soul nor hope of another life after death; man
reduced to matter who, after death, has only to return into the
"Great All" or Mother Earth and meld into it.
- Fustel de Coulanges, La Cité antique.
- Ibid., p.12.
- De Leg., II, 9.
- Christus, p.274.
M. X. Rulder to Doctor Catte.
Thompson. Both quotations are extracted from the
Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique,
La Cité antique, p.20.