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“Ask a Priest: How Does the Church Want a Body Treated After Death?”
Q: My husband participated in a memorial for a fellow Knight of Columbus who recently died. The service took place at the nursing home; the Knights prayed the usual rosary. My husband said the member’s body was not present, since it was donated to a university medical school. To us, there seemed to be something improper about the absence of body or ashes. I know it is acceptable to donate organs, but what about this case, as I was mainly questioning proper handling of the body (i.e., normal burial of ashes/body) when the university is finished with its research? Don’t know what is the acceptable Catholic protocol is in a case like this. -L.T.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: I can readily understand the emotional discomfort you must have felt by hearing about the whereabouts of the body of the deceased. To lose a loved one or friend, and then not be able to pay respects in the presence of the body, can leave a sense of emptiness or unease. As Christians we believe strongly in the resurrection of the body and so appreciate the Church’s guidance that bodies of the dead should be treated with great respect.
It is permissible, however, to donate a body to science, if specific conditions are met. It is also permissible for such bodies to be cremated — again, if certain conditions are met. Ashes ideally should be present for a funeral liturgy and later buried in a cemetery or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium.
The Catechism, in No. 2300, says, “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection.” No. 2301 states, “Autopsies can be morally permitted for legal inquests or scientific research.”
Regarding the proper respect for and treatment of the body after death, several numbers in canon law give guidance.
Canon 1176, paragraph 1, affirms that deceased Catholics must be given Church funerals that are in conformity with ecclesial law.
Canon 1176, paragraph 3, reminds us that the Church recommends the custom of burying the bodies of the departed. But the Church does not forbid the cremation of those bodies as long as it was not chosen for reasons contrary to Catholic teaching.
Since the institutions to which bodies of the deceased are donated routinely cremate those bodies, unless the donor or his caregivers explicitly want to inter the bodily remains in a grave, Church law regarding cremation is frequently applicable.
If the remains are cremated, there is nothing specific in canon law requiring that they be interred in a cemetery, preferably a Catholic cemetery. Many U.S. dioceses in the United States have a policy similar to that of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Among the Philadelphia norms spelled out are:
• If a body is cremated prior to the Funeral Liturgy and the burial/disposition follows, then: 1) The cremated remains are to be brought to the Church in a worthy vessel, that is, in a solid and durable container, which may appropriately be marked with the name of the deceased; 2) The vessel may be carried in the entrance procession or it may be put in place before the Funeral Liturgy begins.
• “The cremated remains are to be buried in a cemetery or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium.”
• “It is not permitted to scatter cremated remains.”
For more reading see the U.S. bishops’ webpage. I hope this helps. God bless.
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