What presence of the Church in the crematoriums?

It was in La Seyne-sur-Mer (Var), mid-January. The diocese of Fréjus-Toulon alerted to the presence of a man claiming to be a Catholic priest, who would officiate during funeral rites at the crematorium. An imbroglio had ensued, since this man was certainly a priest, but of a Church not dependent on Rome. Beyond the parochial quarrels, this puzzling episode had the merit of shedding light on a crucial question: what presence of the Catholic Church in crematoriums?

→ READ. Alert to the “false priest” of La Seyne-sur-Mer

“The original crematist project was atheist, in total opposition to the Church”, recalls Damien Le Guay, author of Death in ashes (Éditions du Cerf, 2012). The first “Society for the Propagation of Cremation” was created in France in 1880 under the impetus of free thinkers and Freemasons.

The practice was legalized in 1887 and remained in the minority until the 1980s and 1990s, when it began to grow exponentially. In 1980, 1% of funerals were subject to cremation. “Today, we are at 40%, and we should reach one in two people within a few years”, warns Frédérique Plaisant, president of the French Cremation Federation.

“If we weren’t there, families wouldn’t go to church either”

If cremation has been tolerated by the Vatican since 1963, the presence of the Church in crematoriums remains unequal, endowed with a vague status. In principle, families requesting Catholic funerals are invited to celebrate them in the parish, before the deceased is transported to the crematorium.

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“If we weren’t there, the families wouldn’t go to church either”, argues Agnès Renaud, head of a team of volunteers organizing prayer times at the crematorium in Aix-en-Provence. In the city of King René, this team of volunteers was put in place by Archbishop Christophe Dufour only two years ago.

But this kind of initiative remains fragile and uneven. “It all depends on the diocese, recalls Agnès Renaud. Some bishops refuse to ensure a Christian presence in the crematorium. “ In 2018, the bishop of Grenoble decided to interrupt the mission of the funeral team at the city’s funeral center to redirect them to the church.

“Many people were cremated without a single word of the Gospel. The Archbishop was concerned that a word of faith, of hope, be pronounced at the funeral. However tenuous this link with the Church, it was important that death did not have the last word ”, explains Father Michel Desplanches, Vicar General of Aix, where the group of volunteers has been set up. And, contrary to the fears expressed, this device has not reduced the number of funerals in the parish.

→ READ. In Grenoble, funerals “relocated” in churches

Agnès Renaud’s team, formed and commissioned by the diocese, organizes times of prayer “Without paschal candle or incense, but with the signs of baptism: the cross, water, light”. At the request of families, volunteers intervene to prepare a personalized time. “We call relatives who tell us about the deceased, and we show them the signs of God in his life. It soothes them a lot. “

Often this is the only contact families have with the Church. “It’s pedagogy for the living, summarizes Agnès Renaud. We must reassure those close to them who do not dare, ask for a time of prayer out of culture or superstition. When I pray the Our Father, I am often alone. People don’t know him. “

Sign of the gap between believers and practitioners

“It is in the crematorium that we see the gap between the 53% of cultural Catholics and the 5% of practicing”, Damien Le Guay analysis. However, the demand for funerals of a religious nature is not decreasing: according to the philosopher, it would represent about 80% of funerals. At the Aix crematorium, prayer times concerned around 450 funerals out of 2,000 in 2020.

In some dioceses where the Church is not present in the crematoriums, the funeral directors or managers of the crematorium, trained to be masters of ceremonies, organize themselves with the means at hand in the “omnicult” room of the crematorium: “A reading, a bottle brush to bless the body and religious symbols. But it is not a real time of prayer ”, specifies Frédérique Plaisant.

Damien Le Guay is convinced that the stake for the Church is fundamental. “Either we consider that the funeral must take place in the parish; or the Church unanimously decides to follow the Christian where he is. “ For Agnès Renaud, it is even the duty of Christians: “The crematoriums are the outskirts of Pope Francis. This is the last place people will hear about God. “


What the Church says about cremation

The Catholic Church has tolerated cremation since July 5, 1963, during Vatican Council II. However, she considers burial to be the preferred route for Catholics.

It demands that the ashes of the deceased be kept in a sacred place, namely the cemetery or, where appropriate, a church or a space specially dedicated for this purpose. She therefore refuses the dispersion of ashes.

The Church recommends that the deceased, before being cremated, be the subject of a funeral at the parish church.

In practice, many families do not take the step of going to church. In 2001, the bishops therefore requested that a prayer be offered in the crematorium. The prayer time can be animated by a priest, a deacon or a layman commissioned by the diocese.


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