If you were able to get to church on Ash Wednesday, you probably heard the traditional words for the imposition of ashes: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” They catch us short and remind us we are pilgrims on this earth, so I would like to say a few words about Catholic funerals.
The following excerpts are taken from the General Introduction of the Order of Christian Funerals:
4. At the death of a Christian, whose life of faith was begun in the waters of baptism and strengthened at the eucharistic table, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end, nor does it break the bonds forged in life. The Church also ministers to the sorrowing and consoles them in the funeral rites with the comforting word of God and the sacrament of the Eucharist.
5. Christians celebrate the funeral rites to offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now been returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just. The Mass, the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, is the principal celebration of the Christian funeral.
Unfortunately, in some cases, non-practicing family members will dispense with the celebration of Mass or any religious service for a deceased parent or family member who was a devout practicing Catholic. A phrase I hear often enough is that they simply can’t be bothered to sit through all of that or simply can’t deal with death and want to get it all over with as soon as possible.
I would suggest that you leave instructions with your lawyer that you want a Catholic funeral that includes Mass and a full body burial. Better yet: make prearrangements with a funeral home.
The practice of cremation has grown and become more commonplace in the United States, and it is often presented as a more affordable alternative to traditional burial. What is often overlooked is the Church’s teaching regarding the respect and honor due to the human body. The Order of Christian Funerals’ Appendix on Cremation states: “Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the human body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites” (no. 413).
An Instruction from the U.S. Bishops reminds us that the cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the way they are carried, and the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased is not the reverent disposition that the Church requires.
If cremation is chosen, it is most appropriate that the Funeral Mass be celebrated with the full body present and cremation and burial of the cremated remains take place afterward.
Finally: What does the Catholic Church say about organ donation after death? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity” (No. 2296). The Church does teach that the remains, after organ donation or medical research, should be treated with reverence and should be entombed or buried.
“It is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins.” (2 Maccabees 12:46)
Blessings, Fr. Schuessler