Liturgy Lines: Catholic Cremation and the Columbarium

by Elizabeth Harrington

This article originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on May 18th, 2017.

Many churches have established a columbarium to receive the ashes of the deceased in or near the church. Like the graveyard of old, this preserves the remains and names of those we love at the heart of the praying Christian community of the parish.

In the Catholic funeral rites, the body of the deceased is the most important symbol of the person whom we farewell and commend to God’s mercy, and for whom we pray. We treat the body with reverence, clothing the coffin in a baptismal pall and sprinkling it with water, decorating it with beautiful flowers, and venerating it with incense. After the Catholic funeral liturgy in the presence of the body, our care for the dead takes us from the church to the place of burial or cremation.

When the body is cremated, preferably after the funeral, Catholic practice is to treat the ashes as we would the body, namely as a primary symbol of the person, and so with due honor and respect. The human remains after cremation are buried or placed in a columbarium.

There is however a liturgical problem here – the double rite of committal (see OCF 212 and Praenotanda 15).  When the body is taken from the church to the crematorium, the first rite of committal is celebrated in a way analogous to burial.  This rite concludes the liturgy on the day of the funeral: the mourners are blessed and sent forth in the peace of Christ.

However, there is a second rite of committal to be celebrated when the ashes are returned to the family and they are buried or placed in the columbarium niche. What happens in a single rite at burial is split into two phases – first the reverent disposal of the body and second the establishment of the sacred memorial of a person’s earthly remains.  The two committal rites should not be seen as a mere repetition, but as different rites each with its distinctive meaning and emphasis.  The selection and adaptation of liturgical texts will be critical.

As a stand-alone liturgy some weeks or months after the funeral, the committal of the ashes may include a longer Scripture reading and a homily (OCF 212), though sometimes the placement of the ashes is treated as a private event with only a few family members present. The church may often not be involved at all.

In the case of a columbarium at the parish church, the rite would naturally take on a stronger communal focus. The priest or other pastoral leader would make of it a genuine liturgical rite.  One could even imagine some elements of the rite of committal being incorporated into the Sunday Mass with a final procession to the columbarium.  The deceased could be mentioned in the Eucharistic Prayer and the family included in the general intercessions.  Family members would hold the ashes during a prayer at the end of Mass and the prayer of committal could be prayed upon arrival at the columbarium in the presence of some or all of the parish community.

“Liturgy Lines” are short 500-word essays on liturgical topics written by Elizabeth Harrington, Liturgy Brisbane’s education officer. They have been published every week in The Catholic Leader since 1999.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Harrington, Archdiocese of Brisbane.

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9 comments

  1. “… sometimes the placement of the ashes is treated as a private event with only a few family members present. The church may often not be involved at all.”
    This seems to presume that the “church” is present only when some official of the church or parish is present. But if family members are present who are members of the church, then the church is truly present. We speak of “the domestic church” – the church as present in the home.
    We can encourage each and every member of the church to realise and act on their membership of the church. There is no reason why the family members present cannot join in a committal rite with readings and prayers. This is not to discourage participation by a priest or other official, but to underline the importance of all members of the church assuming their full baptismal role.

  2. Well, translation of remains from one place to another is not exactly new ground (pun intended). What might past practice in that regard illuminate?

    And how have the issue of committal of partial remains to different places (notably in the case of royalty) been treated ritually?

  3. “In the case of a columbarium at the parish church, the rite would naturally take on a stronger communal focus…One could even imagine some elements of the rite of committal being incorporated into the Sunday Mass with a final procession to the columbarium.”

    Maybe some families would prefer more privacy in their mourning, especially at a committal, with the Church only represented by Her minister. And it might be slightly uncomfortable for the “assembly” if Sunday Mass were to be turned into a mini-funeral.

    1. @John Kohanski:

      “Maybe some families would prefer more privacy in their mourning, especially at a committal, with the Church only represented by Her minister. And it might be slightly uncomfortable for the “assembly” if Sunday Mass were to be turned into a mini-funeral.”

      It seems that, for funerals, weddings and baptisms, there isn’t a strong correlation these days between those who desire the church’s services for these milestones and those who are weekly attendees. At least, that’s how it works around here. Well, actually, for weddings, it seems like couples are just increasingly giving the whole church wedding thing a miss.

      For those deceased whose families are active members of the faith community, the families might appreciate having the entire parish community committing the loved one’s remains. As it is, we already pray during mass for those parish members who recently died, and that’s clearly important to family members – I’ve seen them become emotionally wrought over a perceived omission in this regard, or even a mispronunciation of a loved one’s name (which we try to get right, but it’s sort of an imperfect system).

  4. The interment of cremanes in a columbarium in or near the church could fittingly be preceded by a prayer prior to the sending forth of the assembly without the Mass being turned into a “mini-funeral”. Since consoling the bereaved is a work of mercy, inviting parishioners to join family members to the columbarium could in no way be deemed offensive or out of place.
    But this raises the question of parishes being free to construct columbaria without being thwarted by liturgical experts who assert that such structures should be restricted to those that already have cemeteries. I have also heard of objections based on the fact that if at some point a parish were to be closed or even sold whatever would become of the cremanes. The truth is that burial urns in a columbarium are easily removed and transferred. Any costs that might be incurred could be built into the initial agreement and its costs.
    Our parish has a beautiful garden in the middle of which is the church’s original baptismal font with flowing water. A columbarium there would be most suitable and many parishioners desire it. The liturgy director says we don’t have a cemetery so not possible. Can’t resist referring to the axiom about it being easier to negotiate with a terrorist than…….

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:
        It’s actually not just zoning that presents problems, but civil law governing cemeteries. We studied the issue here in Louisville and found that state law treats a columbarium the same as a cemetery. This would require a parish to set up the legal and financial structures necessary to protect and care for the columbarium at the same site in perpetuity. Given that Kentucky is not known for being a state with especially restrictive regulation, I wouldn’t be surprised if the law were similar in most places.

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