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Funerals With Cremated Remains

Date: July 11, 2021
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: During the funeral Mass when the cremated remains are present, are the remains sprinkled with holy water and reverenced with incense at the final commendation? -- D.Y., Winnipeg, Manitoba

A: The question regards one form of funeral celebration with cremated remains which the Church now permits. However, a funeral Mass with the presence of cremated remains is the least preferable option.

The norms regarding funerals with cremated remains can be found in an appendix to the Order of Christian Funerals issued under the authority of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments. Also, many dioceses have issued their own norms to apply the general norms to local situations. We offer in part both these general norms and an example of the norms issued by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

In Appendix 2 of the Order of Christian funerals we find the Liturgical Norms on Cremation:

“411. The Christian faithful are unequivocally confronted by the mystery of life and death when they are faced with the presence of the body of one who has died. Moreover, the body which lies in death naturally recalls the personal story of faith, the loving family bonds, the friendships, and the words and acts of kindness of the deceased person. Indeed, the human body is inextricably associated with the human person, which acts and is experienced by others through that body. It is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing.

“412. The body of a deceased Catholic Christian is also the body once washed in baptism, anointed with the oil of salvation, and fed with the Bread of Life. Thus, the Church's reverence for the sacredness of the human body grows out of a reverence and concern both natural and supernatural for the human person. The body of the deceased brings forcefully to mind the Church's conviction that the human body is in Christ a temple of the Holy Spirit and is destined for future glory at the resurrection of the dead. This conviction in faith finds its expression in a sustained and insistent prayer that commends the deceased person to God's merciful care so that his or her place in the communion of the just may be assured. A further expression is the care traditionally taken to prepare the bodies of the deceased for a burial that befits their dignity, in expectation of their final resurrection in the Lord.

“413. 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.

“417. 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 manner in which they are carried, 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 are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires. Whenever possible, appropriate means for recording with dignity the memory of the deceased should be adopted, such as a plaque or stone which records the name of the deceased.

“418. When the choice has been made to cremate a body, it is recommended that the cremation take place after the Funeral Liturgy. In this case, the Vigil for the Deceased and related rites and prayers, as well as the Funeral Liturgy are celebrated as they are provided in this ritual.

“419. At the conclusion of the Funeral Liturgy, the Rite of Final Commendation and Farewell takes place, using the alternate form of dismissal (p. 396). Then the cremation of the body takes place.

“420. At the Rite of Committal, the cremated remains of the body of the deceased person are reverently taken to the place of burial or entombment and the alternate form for the words of committal is used (p. 396).

“421. When the Final Commendation is celebrated as part of the Rite of Committal rather than at the Funeral Liturgy, the alternate form for the words of committal is used.

“422. When cremation and committal take place before the Funeral Liturgy, the Prayers after Death and the Vigil for the Deceased may be adapted as necessary and appropriate and used before the Funeral Liturgy. The Rite of Committal with Final Commendation may also be celebrated at that time. The alternate form for the words of committal is used.

“423. Following the committal, the family and friends of the deceased join the Catholic community for the Funeral Liturgy, Prayers which do not make reference to the honoring or burying of the body of the deceased should be chosen instead of those which have these themes.

“424. The Funeral Mass is celebrated as given in this ritual. The Rite of Final Commendation is omitted, since it has already taken place. Following the prayer after Communion, the blessing is given and the people are dismissed in the usual way.

“425. When the Funeral Liturgy outside Mass is celebrated, the Rite of Final Commendation is omitted, since it has already taken place. Following the Lord's Prayer, a blessing is given and the people are dismissed in the usual way.

“426. By virtue of an indult granted by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (Prot. 1589/96/L), the celebration of the Funeral Liturgy, including Mass, in the presence of the cremated remains of the body of a deceased person is permitted in the dioceses of the United States of America under the following conditions:

“a. That the cremation not be inspired by motives contrary to Christian teaching, in accordance with what is laid down by the Code of Canon Law (canon 1176 § 3).

“b. That each diocesan bishop will judge whether it is pastorally appropriate to celebrate the liturgy for the dead, with or without Mass, with the ashes present, taking into account the concrete circumstances in each individual case, and in harmony with the spirit and precise content of the current canonical and liturgical norms.

“427. If the diocesan bishop has decided to allow the celebration of the Funeral Liturgy in the presence of the cremated remains of the deceased person, care must be taken that all is carried out with due decorum. The cremated remains of the body are to be placed in a worthy vessel. A small table or stand is to be prepared for them at the place normally occupied by the coffin. The vessel containing the cremated remains may be carried to its place in the entrance procession or may be placed on this table or stand sometime before the liturgy begins.

“428. After the people have assembled, the Funeral Mass is celebrated as laid down in the Roman Missal and this ritual. Prayers which do not make reference to the honoring or burying of the body of the deceased should be chosen instead of those which have these themes. Following the prayer after Communion, the Rite of Final Commendation takes place. The alternate form for the dismissal is used (p. 396).

“429. When the Funeral Liturgy outside Mass is celebrated, all takes place as laid down in this ritual. Prayers which do not make reference to the honoring or burying of the body of the deceased should be chosen instead of those which have these themes. Following the Lord's Prayer, the Rite of Final Commendation takes place. The alternate form for the dismissal is used (p. 396).

“430. The Rite of Committal is celebrated at the cemetery or columbarium as soon as possible following the Funeral Liturgy. The alternate form for the words of committal is used (p. 396).

“431. When the Rite of Committal with Final Commendation is celebrated, the alternate form for the words of committal is used.”

With respect to the example of diocesan norms, we report only that part which refers to the celebration of Mass in the presence of cremated remains.

“Part III: Funeral Mass in the Presence of the Cremated Remains

“Sometimes it is not possible for the body to be present for the funeral Mass. When extraordinary circumstances make the cremation of the body prior to the funeral liturgy the only feasible choice, pastoral sensitivity must be exercised by all who minister to the family of the deceased.

“In extraordinary circumstances the Diocesan Bishop grants permission to pastors or their delegate to celebrate the funeral liturgy in the: presence of the cremated remains in the church.

“‘Due decorum’ as mentioned in (OCF Appendix 2: Cremation, #417) suggests that ‘Option 1’ below is more appropriate.

“Option 1 – Cremated remains placed before the procession

“1. A small table or stand is prepared in the sanctuary for the cremated remains. They should not be placed on the altar of sacrifice, or any side altars. This should be done in such a way that it does not appear the cremated remains are enthroned.

“2. The cremated remains may be placed on the table before the funeral liturgy begins.

“3. If the table or stand is prepared at the place normally occupied by the coffin, care should be taken that it will not be disturbed during the communion procession.

“4. The paschal candle should be placed near the table or stand on which the cremated remains rest during the funeral liturgy.

“5. The presiding priest greets the family and friends at the church entrance, and leads them in procession to their place in the church. An appropriate hymn, psalm or antiphon should be sung at this time.

“6. On reaching the altar, the priest, with the assisting ministers, makes the customary reverence, kisses the altar, and if incense is used, incenses the altar.

“7. When the presiding priest reaches his chair and the song is finished he may use one of the greetings in OCF #159 or similar words. He may then sprinkle the cremated remains with holy water according to the following prayer: ‘As our brother/sister has died with the Lord, so may he/she live with him in glory.’

“8. If the priest chooses not to sprinkle the cremated remains, he goes immediately to the opening prayer. (#11 Option 1, below)

“9. The covering of the cremated remains with a pall is omitted.

“10. Other Christian symbols (crucifix, Book of the Gospels) should not be placed on top of the cremated remains.

“11. If the priest has sprinkled the cremated remains (#7 above), he then says ‘Let us pray ...’ and continues with the opening prayer of the Mass as found in the Roman Missal under the heading ‘Masses for the Dead.’ The OCF also offers suggested opening prayers and scripture readings. (OCF, #164, #190 Part III, Texts of Sacred Scripture, Part V, Additional Texts) Prayers which do not make reference to the honoring or burying of the body of the deceased should be chosen instead of those which have these themes.

“12. The funeral Mass continues in the usual manner. (Cf. #’s 10, 11, 12, 13 in Option II below)”

With respect to Option II, we include only those norms which differ from Option I.

“Option II – Cremated remains carried in procession

“3. The priest goes to the family at the church entrance, together with the assisting ministers. Using one of the greetings in OCF #159, or similar words, he greets those present.

“4. The priest and assisting ministers precede the bearer of the cremated remains and the mourners into the church, accompanied by an appropriate hymn, psalm or antiphon.

“5. A family member reverently may carry the cremated remains and place them on the small table in the sanctuary.

“9. The priest then says ‘Let us pray ...’ and continues with the opening prayer of the Mass as found in the Roman Missal under the heading ‘Masses for the Dead.’ The OCF also offers suggested opening prayers and scripture readings. (OCF, #164, #190 Part III, Texts of Sacred Scripture, Part V, Additional Texts) Prayers which do not make reference to the honoring or burying of the body of the deceased should be chosen instead of those which have these themes.

“10. The funeral Mass continues in the usual manner.

“11. Following the prayer after communion, the rite of final commendation is celebrated. The priest may incense the cremated remains during the song of farewell.

“12. The alternate form of the dismissal is used. (see OCF, Appendix 2: Cremation, p. 10)

“13. The rite of committal is celebrated at the cemetery or columbarium as soon as possible following the funeral liturgy. The alternate form for the words of committal is used. (OCF, Appendix 2: Cremation, p. 10)

“14. When the rite of committal with final commendation is celebrated, the alternate form of the words of committal is used.”

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