Q: Why did the Church originally forbid cremation, and what made it change its position?
A: The early Christians, most of whom were first Jewish in membership, adopted the Jewish burial customs, which had always been bodily burial due to their belief in the resurrection of the dead. As Christ was laid in a tomb, so it became the norm for Christians to be buried in the ground or in tombs, catacombs, and mausoleums.
As Christianity spread into pagan countries where cremation was the norm, opponents to the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead encouraged people to be cremated in order to deny this dogma of our faith. For this reason, the Church forbade any Christian from being cremated to prevent any possible scandal. This situation resurfaced at the turn of the last century when much of liberal Protestantism began to deny belief in both the resurrection of Christ and of all the dead, thus permitting cremation for its members.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, however, the Church began to realize that often people were choosing cremation not to deny the resurrection of the dead, but for economic reasons or the fact that, in many places, they were simply running out of space for bodily burials. As it stands now, the Church’s teaching is that cremation is permitted “provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (CCC, 2301). Nevertheless, the Church’s preference remains for bodily burial to uphold the dignity of the human body as God’s temple. Even if someone wants to be cremated, it is strongly recommended that it be done after a funeral Mass so that the body can be given due reverence and respect during that celebration.