The Catholic view of cremation has changed in recent years. Cremation was the common practice of the Roman empire at the time of Jesus. In contrast, the Jewish community followed the practice of burying the bodies of those who had died. In the tradition of his time, Jesus, after his death on the cross, was buried in a tomb, probably a cave. The early Christians appear to have followed the Jewish practice. They buried their dead in cemeteries, or the underground caves we now call catacombs. A special regard was attached to the bodies of martyrs who had died violent deaths rather than deny their faith. Their tombs became places of prayer.
The practice of cremation disappeared after Roman times, re-appearing only as a means of coping with the mass deaths and contagion brought by plagues during the Middle Ages. In the late 19th and early twentieth century, cremation again became a common practice in Great Britain and Europe. This occurred for a variety of reasons, including expense, lack of cemetery space, and a disenchantment with the burial procedures that had developed in funeral parlors. The Catholic church took a stand against this practice, as expressing a denial of Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. The 1917 Code of Canon law forbade a Church funeral for those who were to be cremated.
As the practice of cremation became more common, however, the Church’s attitude changed. In 1963 the Vatican lifted the prohibition against cremation. In 1983 a new revision of Canon Law replaced the 1917 Code. The new revision allowed both cremation and burial as means of honoring the body of a deceased Catholic.
Today the Order of Christian Funerals developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offers three options for funerals with cremated remains. These are: (1(and preferred)) cremation follows the funeral service, with a reverent disposition of the cremated remains through burial in a cemetery, (2) the bereaved gather for the committal of the cremated remains at the cemetery first, followed by a funeral liturgy at the church, (3) direct or immediate cremation, followed by a funeral liturgy at the church and burial of the remains at an appropriate time. The U.S. Bishops do not encourage practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea or on the ground, or keeping them in the home of a relative or friend, although burial at sea in an urn is acceptable.
Today, while burial remains the more typical practice, it’s no longer uncommon for deceased Catholics to be cremated. The Church continues to teach that the bodies of those who have died be treated with great respect and dignity, both as God’s creation and as former temples of the Holy Spirit, and as an expression of our hope in the risen life to come, which Catholics believe will once again unite the human person as body and spirit.
What do Catholics teach about heaven?
The first thing to do is to set aside the popular images of heaven as a place “up there” in the clouds entered by golden gates and populated with angels playing harps. We’ve inherited these images from artists in the Middle Ages who were trying to capture on canvas a portrait of something about which they had no firsthand experience. Our human imagination needs to have a mental picture of a place to make it real. The pictures we carry in our memory about what heaven might be like can help as long as we realize they will always fall short of picturing what is essentially a mystery. We don’t have a photograph of heaven. We don’t have a map. No one has been there and returned to tell us what it’s like. We trust, therefore, in Jesus’ teaching about a God who loves us and wants us to enjoy his everlasting life.
What, then, can we say about heaven? That it is being in relationship with God. Since God is love, and a relationship of love with God is the fulfillment for which we were created, then heaven is a state of complete happiness, a happiness rooted in being absolutely at harmony with God and all who share in the love of God. We enter heaven by saying “yes” to God’s invitation, proclaimed in the flesh by Jesus, to know, love and serve God in this world. The Catholic Church teaches that in the fulfillment of time we will be resurrected in order to enjoy God’s presence as whole persons, with spirit-filled bodies. Therefore heaven has some quality of being a “place” as well as a state of being.
An important aspect of the Catholic understanding of heaven is that it entails a life in community. Heaven means the fulfillment of all human relationships with God. We do not stand before God merely as individuals but as members of a community. An integral part of the joy we experience in heaven is that we are united in a communion of love with God and other people. In fact, in some mysterious way, life with God involves the renewal and reunion of all of creation.