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Cremation and Burial at Sea

Regarding the practice of cremation of a body and burial at sea, the Office for Worship renews catechesis on these questions for the benefit of pastors and pastoral ministers. A helpful summary of the Church's teaching on cremation may be found in the 1998 statement of the Bishop's Committee on the Liturgy, "Reflections on the Body, Cremation and Catholic Funeral Rites."

"The Church's belief in the sacredness of the human body and the resurrection of the dead has traditionally found expression in the care taken to prepare the bodies of the deceased for burial." (OCF 411)

"This is the body once washed in baptism, anointed with oil of salvation, and fed with the bread of life. This is the body whose hands clothed the poor and embraced the sorrowing. Indeed, the human body is so inextricably associated with the human person apart from his or her the body grows out of a reverence and concern for the person whom the Church now commends to the care of God." (OCF 412)

Thus, while "cremation is now permitted, 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 its rites." (413) However, "when extraordinary circumstances make the cremation of a body the only feasible choice, pastoral sensitivity must be exercised by all who minister to the family of the deceased." (414)

The rites of burial for the cremated remains of a body may be found in the appendix to the Order of Christian Funerals. This appendix recommends that when cremation is chosen, the body be cremated after the funeral, thus allowing for the presence of the body at the Funeral Mass. When pastoral circumstances require it, however, cremation and committal may take place even before the Funeral liturgy.

Any catechesis on the subject of cremation should emphasize that "the cremated remains of a body should be treated with same respect given to the corporeal remains of a human body. 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." (416)

While cremated remains may be buried in a grave, entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium or even buried at sea, "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." (416) The cremated remains of the body may be properly buried at sea in the urn, coffin or other container in which they have been carried to the place of committal.

When a body, or the cremated remains of a body are buried at sea, the Committal prayer found at number 406 § 4 is used:

Lord God,

By the power of your word
you stilled the chaos of the primeval seas,
you made the raging waters of the Flood subside,
and calmed the storm on the sea of Galilee.
As we commit the body (earthly remains)
of our brother (sister) N. to the deep,
grant him/her peace and tranquility
until that day when he/she
and all who believe in you
will be raised to the glory of new life
promised in the waters of baptism.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.
R. Amen.

Copyright © 1999 by the United States Catholic Conference.
All rights reserved. Used with permission.