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In a copy of Order of Christian Funerals that my deacon owns, it says this regarding burial and cremation:

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.

414 The Church's teaching in regard to the human body as well as the Church's preference for burial of the body should be a regular part of catechesis on all levels and pastors should make particular efforts to preserve this important teaching.

Unfortunately, it doesn't go into detail about why the Catholic Church prefers burial over cremation.

What is the reasoning for this? What values that the Church affirms are better expressed through burial, but not cremation?

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TL;DR

The Church considered cremation as incompatible with the Christian tradition of burial (inherited from Judaism, and kept by Christians later on). This became particularly clear when secular cremation societies emerged in the 19th century. Hence the explicit prohibition in the Canon Law of 1917. Yet, as time went by, and as the practice became more popular, the Church realized cremation was commended by others not on anti-Cahtolic grounds, but on practical arguments (land use, cost, public health). Thus, it eliminated the restriction. However, there are limits to this freedom. As the Catechism (2301) states:

The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.

This is, the person cremated must not have desired such method as a denial of an established Church dogma.


Long answer

The New Catholic Encyclopedia (2003) has a longish article about it. Here are some excerpts. First, some historical context:

The Hebrew Scriptures witness to the fact that the Israelites buried their dead. The Gospel accounts describe how those who took Jesus’ body from the cross were careful to observe Jewish burial practices as to time and manner of burial. Early Christians, even during the era of persecutions, maintained extensive cemeteries in Rome, North Africa, and elsewhere. Gradually Christian reverence for the body as a ‘‘temple of the Holy Spirit,’’ together with their belief in life after death, resurrection, and the immortality of the soul, reinforced the practice of inhumation. Through the Middle Ages into modern times cremation remained the exception, surfacing from time to time in circumstances of mass deaths from plagues, war, and natural disasters.

Then, in the 19th century, many cremation societies emerged in Europe and North America, usually arguing for it in terms of public hygiene and land conservation. Yet,

... the Church regarded the cremation societies as materialist and saw the practice as incompatible with the traditional burial customs of the Christian liturgy. In 1886 the Holy Office forbade Catholics from joining cremation societies and prohibited the practice of cremation. The 1917 Code of Canon Law did not address cremation as such but was sharply critical of the reasons used to justify it (c. 1203). The 1917 Code also prohibited ecclesiastical burial of bodies that were to be cremated (c. 1240). Directives to missionaries outside Europe, however, were milder in tone and allowed greater toleration of the practice [see Fonti (Fontes) CICO 4 n1189; 7n4905, Collectanea 2n1626]. Nonetheless, as late as 1926, an instruction of the Holy Office still characterized proponents of cremation as ‘‘enemies of Christianity’’ and warned of the dangers of deemphasizing the resurrection of the body (AAS 18.282). These societies were perceived to be sectarian, hateful, and contrary to Catholic doctrine (c.1203).

Yet:

Responding to the changing pastoral needs brought about by growth in the number of cremations, particularly in Great Britain and Europe, the Holy See lifted the ban on cremation. ... The lifting of the prohibition reflected the reality that most proponents of cremation are not motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment. The reasons they give for cremation stress rather simplicity, sanitation, sound use of scarce land and, in North America, economic concerns.

Consequently,

the option to select cremation as a means of final disposition was incorporated in the Ordo Exsequiarum for the universal Church of the Roman Rite (1969) and in funeral rites for English-speaking countries (The Rite of Funerals 1970–1989). The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law (c. 1176) codified the authorization and liturgical law. According to the revised law, good will among the faithful is presumed. Cremation and interment both are subject to the same criterion: that Catholic faith and liturgical practice guide and direct pastoral care at the time of death.

Importantly, it is still suggested that the body be present at the funeral. I.e. that cremation occurs after the funeral:

‘‘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.’’ Cremation and Committal of the Remains before the Funeral Liturgy (OCF, 422–425).

Moreover, the Church is not sympathetic to "spreading the ashes" in nature, nor with its private keeping:

Liturgical tradition and the role the Catholic cemetery plays in preserving the memory of Christians profess explicit belief in the promise of resurrection. The cremation Appendix to the OCF expresses the clear preference for preserving the remains of loved ones by interment in a tomb or preservation in a 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’’ (OCF, 417).

Finally:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, citing canon 1176, makes the simple statement, ‘‘The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body’’ (n. 2301). Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead is in no way affected by the state of the corporeal remains. This has been the clearly articulated teaching of the Catholic Church throughout the history of the cremation controversy in the 19th century.

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Cremation erodes the belief in the resurrection of the body* and the afterlife (although nothing can prevent our bodies from resurrecting on the last day).

Moral theologians Frs. McHugh, O.P. & Callan, O.P.'s Moral Theology §2595 write:

(b) The prohibition of the cremation of corpses (Canon 1203 [= 1983 Code canon 1184 [§1.2]]) is not based on natural law or on any dogma, as though the burning of dead bodies were intrinsically evil or repugnant to our faith in immortality and resurrection. On the contrary, in exceptional cases (e.g., in time of war or epidemic) cremation is permitted, if a real public necessity requires it. The reasons for the anti-cremation law are: the tradition of the Old and New Testaments (Gen., iii, 19; I Cor., xv. 42), and especially the example of Christ whose body was consigned to the tomb; the association of burial throughout the history of the Church with sacred rites and the doctrine of the future life, and the contrary association of cremation both in times past and today with paganism and despair; the sacred dignity of the human body (Gen., i. 25; I Cor., iii. 16, iii. 5), and the feeling of affection for parents, relatives, friends, which is outraged when their bodies are consigned to the furnace. The practical arguments offered for cremation are chiefly hygienic and economic; but it is certain that proper burial at sea or in the grave is no menace to public health, and is not more expensive or difficult than cremation. A most serious objection to cremation is that it makes exhumation impossible, and is therefore a means of concealing murder by poison. It is not lawful for a Catholic to coöperate (except materially in case of necessity) with cremation, or to belong to any society that promotes the incineration of corpses; it is not lawful for a priest to give the last Sacraments or funeral rites to those who ordered the cremation of their bodies.

cf. §40.14 "Cremation" of Romano Amerio's Iota Unum

The 1869 International Congress of Freemasons made them promote cremation for undermining belief in the resurrection of the body and the afterlife. Fr. John Laux writes in Catholic Morality (imprimatur 1932), p. 106:

On December 8, 1869, the International Congress of Freemasons imposed it as a duty on all its members to do all in their power to wipe out Catholicity from the face of the earth. Cremation was proposed as a suitable means to this end, since it was calculated to gradually undermine the faith of the people in "the resurrection of the body and life everlasting."

cf. Charles Augustine, O.S.B., D.D.'s A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law on 1917 canon 1240: "all societies whose principal purpose is to promote cremation, or which have tendencies similar to those of Freemasonry" are prohibited from ecclesiastical burial.


*Notes on the resurrection of the body & cremation:

The Sadducees—the Jewish sect Jesus called, along with the Pharisees, a "brood of vipers" (Mt. 3:7)—disbelieved (unlike the Pharisees) the resurrection of the body (cf. Mt. 22:23).

Now, under the guise of "hygiene," cremation is actually incentivized.
(similar to how circumcision—which began as a Jewish purification ritual—is now promoted for hygienic reasons, despite there being no evidence it is more hygienic, although the circumcision rate in the U.S., at least, is declining; and today's circumcision is very different from how ancient Jews were circumcised, which was with one swipe of a knife; modern, Pharisaic circumcision dates from 140 AD)

There are places that freezes bodies because they believe in the future the technology will be so advanced as to be able to resurrect the dead! It's possible, but an unreasonable hope. Even the pagan philosophers realized the human soul is immortal and is still related to the body after death (although some of them did believe in reincarnation). That the soul is immortal follows from the fact we humans are able to know universal things, which are eternal.

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  • 3
    You're making several claims here, none of which you substantiate with external evidence. You could presumably quote from, say, the Catechism to give a reason, but you don't. And your last paragraph is at best tangential to the topic. – Matt Gutting Mar 17 '18 at 10:38
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    Better. But questions. 1. What are Fr. Amerio's credentials? 2. What's the connection between Pharisees/Sadducees and cremation? 3. What's the source for this statement about Freemasons - both what they did and why? 4. What's the relevance of the 1917 Code to cremation? 5. Demonstration that incentives are offered for cremation? 6. And that it is promoted for hygiene? 6. Connection of circumcision to cremation? 7. How does cryopreservation fit in? 8. Why is it in the same paragraph as a discussion of pagan philosophers? 9. How is the immortality of the soul connected to cremation? – Matt Gutting Mar 17 '18 at 20:44
  • There are several other questions and possible improvements I came up with as well, but this is a start. – Matt Gutting Mar 17 '18 at 20:45
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The Christian tradition of burial differed from the Roman tradition of cremation, and the Vatican only lifted the ban on cremation in 1963. The Christian preference for burial may have had a connection with the Pauline idea of the body as a temple of God, and it may have had a connection with the belief in resurrection. Notice that Jews traditionally also prohibited cremation, and Christians often adopted Jewish custom.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cremation_in_the_Christian_World

Burial was never a dogma propounded by the Catholic councils, and what was stated above only shows that there was a strong traditional bias for burial in the catholic church. The fact that burial never was a dogma explains why the ban on cremation could be lifted in 1963. There is more information here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cremation#Catholicism

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