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Cremation and resurrection

Growing problems of space at the cemeteries, primarily linked to the ever-increasing demand for private graves, every now and then lead to fresh comments and writings in favour of the availability of cremation, accompanied by questions regarding the Catholic position on the matter.

The Catholic Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body. The Code of Canon Law states: "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" (Can. 1176:3).

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1963 circulated among bishops an instruction that upheld the traditional practice of Christian burial but modified anti-cremation legislation. It was explained that cremation may be permitted for serious reasons, of a private and also public nature, provided it does not involve any contempt of the Church or of religion, or any attempt to deny, question or belittle the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

The person may receive the last rites and be given ecclesiastical burial. A priest may say prayers for the deceased at the crematorium but full liturgical ceremonies may not take place there. The remains must be treated with respect and placed in consecrated ground.

The principal reason behind an earlier prohibition of cremation was the fact that, historically, the practice had represented an attempt to deny the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

Belief in the resurrection of the dead has been an essential element of the Christian faith from its beginnings.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that God revealed the resurrection of the dead to His people progressively. Hope in the bodily resurrection of the dead established itself as a consequence intrinsic to faith in God as creator of the whole man, soul and body. The creator of heaven and earth is also the one who faithfully maintains his covenant with Abraham and his posterity. It was in this double perspective that faith in the resurrection came to be expressed (992).

In regard to death, man's condition is shrouded in doubt. However, faith in Christ changes that doubt into the certainty of life without end. Jesus declared that he came from the Father "so that whosoever believes in him might not die but have eternal life" (John 3, 16). Again, he says: "For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (Jn 6:40). Indeed, Jesus links faith in the resurrection to his own person: "I am the resurrection and the life" (Jn 11:25).

Death is the end of earthy life but not of our existence because the soul is immortal. Our lives are measured by time, in the course of which we change, grow old and, as with all living beings on earth, death seems like the normal end of life. Seen from the perspective of the faith, death is the end of man's earthly pilgrimage, of the time of grace and mercy which God offers him so as to work out his earthly life in keeping with the divine plan and to decide his ultimate destiny.

Based on the Word of God, the Christian firmly believes and hopes that, just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives forever, so after death the righteous will live forever with the risen Christ and he will raise them up on the last day. Belief in the resurrection of the dead is therefore an essential part of Christian revelation.

St Paul writes: "How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain... But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (Cor 15:12-14, 20).

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