Cremation in the Christian World

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Columbarium niches built into the side of St. Joseph's Chapel Mausoleum at the Catholic Mount Olivet Cemetery, Key West (rural Dubuque), Iowa.

Today, cremation is an increasingly popular form of disposition of the deceased. This is true even in the Christian world, which for many years was opposed to cremation, but has come to a greater acceptance of cremation over the past century.

In Christian countries, cremation fell out of favour due to the Christian belief in the physical resurrection of the body, and as a mark of difference from the Iron Age European pre-Christian Pagan religions, which usually cremated their dead. It was even made a crime punishable with death by Charlemagne in 789 for this reason.[1] Beginning in the Middle Ages, rationalists and classicists began to advocate cremation. In Medieval Europe, cremation was practised only on special occasions when there were many corpses to be disposed of simultaneously after a battle, after an epidemic or during famine, and there was an imminent danger of disease spread. Much later, Sir Henry Thompson, Surgeon to Queen Victoria, was the first to recommend the practice for health reasons after seeing the cremation apparatus of Professor Brunetti of Padua, Italy at the Vienna Exposition in 1873. In 1874, Thompson founded The Cremation Society of England. The society met opposition from the Church, which would not allow cremation on consecrated ground, and from the government, who believed the practice to be illegal.

Cremation was forced into the law of England and Wales when eccentric Welsh doctor, William Price attempted to cremate his dead baby son, Iesu Grist, at Llantrisant in January 1884 and was prevented from proceeding by local people. Later tried at Cardiff Assizes and acquitted on the grounds that cremation was not contrary to law, he was able to carry out the ceremony (the first in the U.K. in modern times) on 14 March 1884 with pagan prayers.[2] On 26 March 1885 the first modern legal cremation in England took place, that of Mrs. Jeanette Pickersgill of London, "well known in literary and scientific circles",[3] by the Cremation Society at Woking, Surrey. This change of attitude prompted the formation of cremation companies in the U.K. One of the first such was set up in Manchester in 1892, closely followed by Maryhill, Glasgow in 1895. An Act of Parliament in the U.K. for the Regulation of burning of human remains, and to enable burial authorities to established crematoria, the "Cremation Act" was eventually passed in 1902, removing all ambiguity.

The Roman Catholic Church[edit]

Also see the Roman Catholic section of the main cremation article.

For most of its history, the Roman Catholic Church had a ban against cremation. It was seen as the most sacrilegious act towards Christians and God, not simply blaspheming, but physically declaring a disbelief in the resurrection of the body. In 1963, the Pope lifted the ban on cremation, and in 1966 allowed Catholic priests to officiate at cremation ceremonies. The Church still officially prefers the traditional interment of the deceased. Despite this preference, cremation is now permitted as long as it is not done to express a refusal to believe in the resurrection of the body. [1] Until 1997, Church regulations used to stipulate that cremation has to take place after a funeral service. Such funeral services are conducted in the same manner as traditional burials up to the point of committal, where the body is taken to the crematorium instead of being buried. A burial service is performed after the cremation is completed.

In 1997, the funeral rite was modified so that church funerals can take place when the body has already been cremated before the ashes are brought to the church. In such cases, the ashes are placed in an urn or another worthy vessel, brought into the church and placed on a stand near the Easter candle. During the church service, and during the committal rite, prayers that make reference to the body are modified. Any prayers that refer to the "Body" of the deceased are replaced with "Earthly Remains."

Since the lifting of the ban, even with the official preference for burial, the Church has become more and more open to the idea of cremation. Many Catholic cemeteries now provide columbarium niches for housing cremated remains as well as providing special sections for the burial of cremated remains. Columbarium niches have even been made a part of church buildings. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, California has a number of niches in the crypt mausoleum. However, church officials still tend to discourage this practice because of concerns over what would happen to the niches if such a parish closes or decides to replace the current building.

The Church requires reverent disposition of the ashes which means that the ashes are to be buried or entombed in an appropriate container, such as an urn. The Church does not permit the scattering of ashes or keeping them at home[citation needed], though some Catholics have done so despite the ban.

Traditionalist Catholics have objected to the practice of allowing cremation, which sedevacantists believe to be one of the many reasons why the post-Vatican II church is no longer the true Catholic Church.

Eastern Orthodox Church[edit]

The Eastern Orthodox Church forbids cremation. Exceptions are made for circumstances where it may not be avoided as in when civil authority demands it, during epidemics or other similar necessary cases. When a cremation is willfully chosen for no cause considered good by the church, he or she is not permitted a funeral in the church and may also be permanently excluded from liturgical prayers for the departed[citation needed]. While in Orthodoxy there is no direct connection between cremation and the dogma of the general resurrection, it is seen as a violent treatment of the body after death, and as such is viewed harshly.[citation needed] I

Protestant Churches[edit]

The highest frequency in the EU is found in the Czech Republic, neighbours to Poland where cremation after the fall of communism almost has disappeared. Here Catholic vs Lutheran version of Christianity is obvious. Cremation is also a bit more common in the protestant parts of Germany, compared with the Catholic parts. In Nazigermany, Heinrich Himmler invented a "nazi-funeral ceremony", which ended with cremation. This was used for instance at the State funeral of Fieldmarshal Erwin Rommel (that had been forced to take his own life, as it was revealed after the war).

Protestant Churches approved cremation gradualy after the First world war and the Spanish flu. During the time between the world wars, the development of modern crematoriums also helped to differentiate Christian cremations from Pagan rites of burning the body on pyre. The first crematorium in Stockholm, Sweden was built 1874. In Finland, the Helsinki Lutheran Parish Union built its first modern crematorium in 1926 which is still in use.

In Scandinavia, approximately 30 to 70 percent of the dead was cremated around the mid 1980's, and in large cities up to 90 percent. However in later years the high frequency has peeked and fallen, one explination is the immigration from muslim, catholic or orthodox nations.

In Scandinavian Lutheran doctrine, the ashes are to be dealt with the same dignity as any earthly remains. They are either to be interred in an urn or sprinkled on consecrated ground, "dust returning to dust," and not stored at home or disposed of in an undignified way. However unmarked massgraves has become a common way to avoid keeping a grave nice and tidy. Tens of thousands of dead people buried within an area of 10-50 common graves. Often the undertakers recommend cremation to the mourners.

Cremation has become accepted in the American Episcopal Church, so much so that many parishes have built columbaria into their churches, chapels and gardens.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism)[edit]

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) have said that cremation is "not encouraged"; however the church provides instructions for properly dressing the deceased prior to cremation.[4] In the past, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie[5] wrote that "only under the most extraordinary and unusual circumstances" would cremation be consistent with LDS teachings.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bregman, Lucy (2010). Religion, Death, and Dying 3. ABC-CLIO. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-313-35173-0. "Cremation had been banned officially by Emperor Charlemagne in 789 as a capital offense and was generally perceived as a pagan practice antithetical to Christianity." 
  2. ^ Hutton, Ronald (2009). Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-14485-7. 
  3. ^ "Cremation". The Times (31405). 27 March 1885. p. 10. 
  4. ^ Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1 (2006). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, pp 81,183-84.
  5. ^ McConkie, Bruce R. Mormon Doctrine, A Compendium of the Gospel, 1958