Cremation.—I. HISTORY.—The custom of burning the bodies of the dead dates back to very early times. The Pre-Canaanites practiced it until the introduction of inhumation among them along with the civilization of the Semitic people about 2500 B.C. History reveals no trace of incineration among the Jewish people, except in extraordinary circumstances of war and pestilence. It was likewise unknown, in practice at least, to the Egyptians, Phcenicians, Carthaginians; or to the inhabitants of Asia Minor—the Carians, Lydians, and Phrygians. The Babylonians, according to Herodotus, embalmed their dead, and the Persians punished capitally such as attempted cremation, special regulations being followed in the purification of fire so desecrated. The Greeks and Romans varied in their practice according to their views of the after life; those who believed in a future existence analogous to the present buried their dead, even leaving food in the tomb for the nourishment and enjoyment of the departed; such as, on the other hand, held the opinion that on the decay of the body life was continued in the shade or image, practiced cremation, the more expeditiously to speed the dead to the land of shadows. But the practice of cremating never entirely superseded what Cicero tells us (De Leg., II, xxii) was the older rite among the Roman people. Indeed the Cornelian gens, one of the most cultured in Rome, had, with the single exception of Sulla, never permitted the burning of their dead. By the fifth century of the Christian Era, owing in great part to the rapid progress of Christianity, the practice of cremation had entirely ceased.
The Christians never burned their dead, but followed from earliest days the practice of the Semitic race and the personal example of their Divine Founder. It is recorded that in times of persecution many risked their lives to recover the bodies of martyrs for the holy rites of Christian burial. The pagans, to destroy faith in the resurrection of the body, often cast the corpses of martyred Christians into the flames, fondly believing thus to render impossible the resurrection of the body. What Christian faith has ever held in this regard is clearly put by the third-century writer Minucius Felix, in his dialogue “Octavius”, refuting the assertion that cremation made this resurrection an impossibility: “Nor do we fear, as you suppose, any harm from the [mode of] sepulture, but we adhere to the old, and better, custom” (“Nee, ut creditis, ullum damnum sepulture timemus bed veterem et meliorem consuetudinem humandi frequentamus “—P.L., III, 362).
II. CHURCH LEGISLATION.—(I) In the Middle Ages.—In all the legislation of the Church the placing of the body in the earth or tomb was a part of Christian burial. In the acts of the Council of Braga (Hardouin, III, 352), in the year 563, while we read that bodies of the dead are by no means to be buried within the basilicas where rest the remains of Apostles and martyrs, we are told that they may be buried without the wall; and that if cities have long forbidden the interment of the dead within their walls, with much greater right should the reverence due the holy martyrs claim this privilege. The same may be seen in the canons of other councils—e.g. of Nantes, between the seventh and ninth centuries; of Mainz, in the ninth century; of Tribur, in the ninth century. This legislation evidently supposes the long-standing custom of burial such as the Church practices today, and shows that in the sixth century, in other places than Rome, where even today the old law of the Twelve Tables exerts a moral influence, the Church had so far conquered the prejudice of the past as to have gained the privilege of burying her dead within the city walls and within the enclosure of the church-yard. Once in the course of the Middle Ages did there seem to be on the part of some a retrogression to the pagan ideals, and as a consequence Boniface VIII, on February 21, 1300, in the sixth year of his pontificate, promulgated a law which was in substance as follows: They were ipso facto excommunicated who disembowelled bodies of the dead or inhumanly boiled them to separate the flesh from the bones, with a view to transportation for burial in their native land. “Detestandae feritatis abusum”, he calls it, and it was practiced in case of those of noble rank who had died outside of their own territory and had expressed a wish to be buried at their place of birth. He speaks of it as an abomination in the sight of God and horrifying to the minds of the faithful, decreeing that, thereafter, such bodies are either to be conveyed whole to the spot chosen or buried at the place of death until, in the course of nature, the bones can be removed for burial elsewhere. Those who were party to these enormities either as the cause or agent of their occurrence were to incur excommunication reserved to the Holy See, while the body thus inhumanly treated could not afterward be given ecclesiastical burial (“Extray. Comm.”, Lib. III, Tit. vi, c. i.).
(2) Decrees of Roman Congregations.—This rigid adherence to the principles of the early teaching of the Church may be seen in the later decrees of the Roman Congregations. The Vicar Apostolic of Vizagapatam, in the year 1884, proposed the following difficulty to the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda: The bodies of two neophytes had been cremated, the parents testifying that there had been no idolatrous ceremonies. Should the missioners in such cases protest against what is considered a privilege of caste, or may the following present practice be tolerated?—If a pagan seeks baptism at the hour of death, the missioner grants it, without questioning what mode of sepulture is to be given the body after death, persuaded that the pagan parents will make no account of his desire to be buried, not cremated. The answer was: “You must not approve of cremation, but remain passive in the matter and confer baptism; be careful also to instruct your people according to the principles which you set forth” (Cremationem approbare non debes, sed passive te habeas, collato semper baptismate, et populos instruendos cures juxta ea qux a te exponuntur). This was given on September 27, 1884. In 1886 another decree forbade membership in cremation societies and declared the unlawfulness of demanding cremation for one’s own body or that of another. On December 15 in the same year a third decree was issued of more or less the same tenor, and finally on July 27, 1892, the Archbishop of Freiburg, among other questions, asked whether it was lawful to cooperate in the cremation of bodies either by command or counsel, or to take part as doctor, official, or laborer working in the crematory. It was answered that formal cooperation, the assent of the will to the deed, is never allowed, either by command or counsel. Material cooperation, the mere aiding in the physical act, may be tolerated on condition (I) that cremation be not looked upon as a distinctive mark of a Masonic sect; (2) that there be nothing in it which of itself, directly and solely, expresses reprobation of Catholic doctrine and approbation of a sect; (3) if it be not clear that the officials and others have been assigned or invited to take part in contempt of the Catholic Religion. And whereas, under the above restrictions, cooperators are to be left in good faith, they must always be warned not to intend cooperation in the cremation. (See “Collectanea S. C. P. F.”, nn. 1608, 1609; “Acta S. Sedis”, XXV, 63; “Am. Eccl. Rev.”, XII, 499.)
(3) Motives of this Legislation.—The legislation of the Church in forbidding cremation rests on strong motives; for cremation in the majority of cases today is knit up with circumstances that make of it a public profession of irreligion and materialism. It was the Freemasons who first obtained official recognition of this practice from various governments. The campaign opened in Italy, the first attempts being made by Brunetti, at Padua, in 1873. Numerous societies were founded after this, at Dresden, Zurich, London, Paris. In the last city a crematory was established at Pere Lachaise, on the passing of the law of 1889 dealing with freedom of funeral rites. The Church has opposed from the beginning a practice which has been used chiefly by the enemies of the Christian Faith. Reasons based on the spirit of Christian charity and the plain interests of humanity have but strengthened her in her opposition. She holds it unseemly that the human body, once the living temple of God, the instrument of heavenly virtue, sanctified so often by the sacraments, should finally be subjected to a treatment that filial piety, conjugal and fraternal love, or even mere friendship seems to revolt against as inhuman. Another argument against cremation, and drawn from medico-legal sources, lies in this: that cremation destroys all signs of violence or traces of poison, and makes examination impossible, whereas a judicial autopsy is always possible after inhumation, even of some months.
Is cremation a sign of culture?—The report of the French Cremation Society for 1905 has the following: “There exist in Europe 90 crematories and the number of incinerations is above 125,000.” In France there are 3 crematories, in the United States 29, in Great Britain 12, in Italy 30, in Germany 9, in Switzerland 4, in Sweden 2, in Denmark, Canada, the Argentine Republic, Australia, one each. “Let us not number here the appliances of Tokio, let us not speak of the pyres raised in the Indies, in China, in Siam, in Cambogia, at all points of the Asiatic Continent, from time immemorial Asia has burned her dead.” At first sight 125,000 seems a large number; but a glance at the Paris statistics will help us to realize its true value. From 1889 to 1905 there were 73,330 cremations in Paris. Only 3484 were by request; 37,082 were hospital debris; 32,757 were embryos. Of the requested cremations there were 216 in 1894, 354 in 1904—an increase in ten years of 138—not a large number, and it serves to prove that even Paris is progressing in the use of cremation very slowly indeed.
The arguments in favor of cremation may he reduced to a few heads: (I) it will prevent the corruption of the soil; (2) drinking water will be safeguarded against contamination; (3) corruption of the air will be avoided in localities bordering on cemeteries, with a consequent lessening of the danger of infection in times of epidemic. In answer it has been urged that cemeteries are not a cause of the infection of the air. In any well-ordered cemetery putrefaction takes place six or seven feet below the surface. In the open air, with abundance of oxygen, corruption proceeds more quickly, with continuous discharge of noxious gases in large quantities highly deleterious to health, but it is not so in the grave. Mantegazza, a celebrated bacteriologist, has shown (“Civilta, Cattolica”, Ser. IX, Vols. X—XII) that, where there is but a small supply of oxygen, bodies will decompose without the emanation of any odor whatever. Often, too, the human body is so reduced before death that in the earth it suffers little or no corruption at all, but is first mummified and then slowly reduced to dust. Again, earth-pressure prevents chemical decomposition to a great extent, producing in the place of gas a liquid which enters into various combinations with the materials in the soil, without the slightest danger to the living. Earth is a powerful agent of disinfection. Even were noxious gases to escape in any quantity, they would be absorbed on their way upwards, so that a very small part would ever reach the surface, or were the soil not fit for absorption (as was said to be the case at Pere-Lachaise, Paris) the process would be taken up by the vegetable matter on the surface. It is held, also, that it is no more true to say that cemeteries are a menace to water wells. Charnock, Delacroix, and Dalton have proved that of three parts of rain water only one penetrates the soil, the other two either evaporating or flowing into rivers. Now corpses in cemeteries are not so placed as to form continuous strata, but a moderate distance intervenes between any two bodies or rows of bodies. Of the third part of rain, then, which penetrates the soil of a graveyard a very little will touch the bodies at all, and what does will not all reach the water streams, but will be absorbed by the earth, so that the remaining drops that would ultimately trickle into the stream would have absolutely no effect, were the stream large or small. Two experiments have proved this. The doctors above mentioned selected a tank 61 feet high, filled it with sand, and for many months filtered through it sewer water taken from the drain-age pipes of Paris. The water received at the bottom of the vessel was always found pure, clear and drinkable. A like experiment was made with a smaller vessel with like results. To anticipate the difficulty, that what held for an experiment with small quantities would prove untrue were the amount of water very great, a large tract of ground near Genvillers was inundated for many months with the same putrid and reeking waters of the Seine after they had passed through the sewers of Paris. The result was the same. Wells were dug in the inundated portion, and the water was again found pure and clear, purer, as it chanced, than that of other wells outside the boundary of the place of experiments. In like manner, the waters in the cemeteries of Leipzig, Hanover, Dresden, and Berlin were examined and found purer and freer from organic matter than the wells of the town.
In conclusion, it must be remembered that there is nothing directly opposed to any dogma of the Church in the practice of cremation, and that, if ever the leaders of this sinister movement so far control the governments of the world as to make this custom universal, it would not be a lapse in the faith confided to her were she obliged to conform.