History of Cremation
The Judaic roots of Christian tradition carried a long-standing prohibition of cremation as a reaction to equally long-standing attempts to annihilate Jewish existence and memory. Although cremation was a common practice among Greeks and Romans, at least for the very poor, Christians moved away from the practice out of:
- faith in the Resurrection of the body
- reverence for the body as a member of the Body of Christ and a temple of the Holy Spirit
- a strong reaction to persecutors' use of burning bodies as a taunt against belief in the Resurrection
The practice of the early Church was crystallized in the 1917 Code of Canon Law which strictly forbade cremation except when grave public necessity required rapid disposition of bodies, as in times of plague or natural disaster. The Church went so far as to deny Christian burial rites to anyone choosing cremation.
The reforms of the Second Vatican Council touched all areas in the life of the Church, including funeral and burial rites. The first document to be promulgated by Pope Paul VI, after the Council began, stated: "The rite for the burial of the dead should evidence more clearly the paschal character of Christian death; and should correspond more closely to the circumstances and traditions found in various regions." (Sacrosanctum Concilium, #81, December 1963) An instruction of the Holy Office related specifically to cremation modified the Church's position to allow cremation to be requested for any sound reason (Piam et Constantem, May 1963). Only if the request were motivated by denial of Christian dogma, hatred of the Catholic Church or a sectarian spirit, would there be any problem with the Church.
This position has now been codified in the Revised Code of Canon Law: "The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained; but it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching." (The Code of Canon Law, 1985, #1176.3)