Q. I have a question, and I know I’m not the only Catholic confused over this. Why is it that some priests allow cremains in church for a funeral Mass and others do not? The last wish of my dying sister was to be cremated and to have a Mass. The priest, however, would not allow her remains to be in church, and so we had a service for her instead in a funeral home.
But I have been to funeral Masses where the cremains were present. Is this a matter of a universal church rule, or is it an individual priest’s decision? (No wonder church attendance is so low and parishes are closing. You are chasing us away. Get your act together.) (South Jersey)
A. For many centuries, the Catholic Church did not permit cremation, due principally to the church’s belief in the resurrection of the body.
Even today, while it does allow cremation, the church clearly prefers traditional burial or entombment as noted in the Code of Canon Law No. 1176, Section 3.
In 1963, when the Vatican lifted its long-held ban on cremation, it still did not allow the cremated remains to be present at a funeral Mass. But later, in 1997, the bishops of the United States applied for and received permission to have a funeral Mass celebrated in the presence of the cremains.
It is now the prerogative of the bishop of each U.S. diocese whether to permit this, and many bishops do. At the Mass, the cremains are usually placed on a small table near the altar, in front of the paschal candle, and they are reverenced with holy water and incense during the ritual.
It should not be the role of a local pastor to prohibit this option if his bishop allows it. Since you did not mention any dates, I’m guessing that your sister’s death occurred before 1997 — i.e., before the Vatican began to allow funerals in the U.S. with the cremains present.
Q. My husband is not a Catholic, but we were married in a Catholic church. I’ve been wondering, when my husband dies, whether he can have a Catholic funeral Mass. We agreed at the time of our marriage to raise our children Catholic, and he has seen to it that they have received all the sacraments.
He also attends Mass with me every Sunday (participating in everything except Communion), and he made sure that our children got to Mass even when I could not go.
We are getting older, and this is becoming a real concern for me. Someone mentioned to me that my husband would not be able to have a funeral Mass, and it seems to me that he is as good as, if not better than, some of the Catholics who are in church with him. Right now I am feeling that, if my husband is not good enough to have a funeral Mass, then neither am I. (Canajoharie, New York)
A. Relax and don’t worry. It’s very likely that your husband will have a Catholic funeral Mass. Here is what the church’s Code of Canon Law says in No. 1183, Section 3: “In the prudent judgment of the local ordinary, ecclesiastical funerals can be granted to baptized persons who are enrolled in a non-Catholic church or ecclesial community unless their intention is evidently to the contrary and provided that their own minister is not available.”
Assuming that your husband was once baptized, there are two other requirements: One is that he has not said that he does not want to have a Catholic funeral; the other is that his minister is unavailable, and since he has been attending Mass with you for many years, the practical reality is that he does not have his own minister.
So I would think that you would have no problem — especially since your husband has been so supportive of your family’s Catholic practice.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at email@example.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.