Cremation numbers rising; burial of a body still preferred by the church

A statue of the risen Jesus Christ towers over Ascension Cemetery in Wichita. The church’s preference of the burial of the entire body is related to its teaching about the sanctity of the body. All Saints Day, a holy day of obligation, is Friday, Nov. 1. All Souls Day is Nov. 2. (Advance photo)

Mark Miller is trying to catechize the living about the dead.

The director of Catholic Cemeteries for the Diocese of Wichita said there is a growing trend nationally and locally among Catholics to choose cremation instead of a traditional burial.

“Even though cremation is accepted by the Catholic Church,” he said in his office at Ascension Cemetery in Wichita, “it is not the preferred method of burial. The Catholic Church prefers a full-body burial with the body present at the funeral Mass.”

The number of cremation services this year at the three Catholic cemeteries in Wichita is up about 12 percent compared to last year. In fiscal year 2018 cremations made up about 25 percent of the burials in the three cemeteries. This year about 37 percent of the burials were of cremated remains.

Cost a factor

A funeral is often a financial hardship for the family, Miller said. “That’s one of the main reasons I hear from families. Cremation is a cheaper form of burial.”

Although some regions of the country have limited land for traditional burials, that isn’t true for the Diocese of Wichita, he said, which has enough cemetery land for many, many years.

“Although Calvary Cemetery is about full,” Miller said. “Only about a third of Resurrection and Ascension cemeteries have been developed.” Calvary Cemetery is nearly at capacity because it is surrounded by housing.

The U.S. Catholic Cemetery Conference last year issued a paper on the topic. The conference associated the increasing popularity of cremation to the absence of religious affiliation. In 2012 nearly half of those surveyed said a religious component in a funeral was important for a loved one. That number dropped to less than 40 percent in 2017.

Body or cremains should be buried

For Catholics, cremation may be an option, but the church says bodies and cremated remains must be buried or interred.

The cemetery conference reported that about a third of the families surveyed in 2013 kept the cremated remains in their homes, a third scattered them, and a third buried them at a cemetery.

Although the church published instructions permitting cremation 56 years ago, the Vatican issued guidelines only three years ago regarding the burial of cremated remains.

Cardinal Gerhard Muller, the Vatican prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2012 to 2017, said in 2016 that while the Catholic Church prefers burial in the ground, it accepts cremation as an option, but forbids the scattering of ashes, and the growing practice of keeping cremated remains at home.

The congregation issued instructions in 1963 permitting cremation as long as it was not done as a sign of denial of the basic Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. However, Cardinal Muller said church law had not specified exactly what should be done with “cremains,” and several bishops’ conferences asked the congregation to provide guidance.

The result, approved by Pope Francis after consultation with other Vatican offices and with bishops, is “Ad Resurgendum Cum Christo” (To Rise with Christ), an instruction “regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation.”

Cremation, in and of itself, does not constitute a denial of belief in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, the instruction says. Nor does it “prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life.”

However, the Catholic Church wholeheartedly recommends continuing the “pious practice of burying the dead,” Cardinal Muller said. It is considered one of the corporal works of mercy, he said, and, mirroring the burial of Christ, it more clearly expresses hope in the resurrection when the person’s body and soul will be reunited.