Body donation and funeral mass


A good friend of mine died this week of cancer. She was Catholic but her husband is not, so he is asking me lots of questions.

My friend decided to donate her remains for scientific research, in accordance with the permission given by Pope Pius XII in 1956 and the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services issued by the USCCB. The recipient organization normally returns the ashes to her family for burial within 12 weeks, but if her remains are used in one particular program (the university medical school) it could be one to two years before the ashes are returned. Her family will be informed of the timing.

My questions regard the timing of the funeral or memorial mass for my friend (yes, I know the difference). The lady in charge of our Bereavement Committee, who plans funerals, says that a post-mortem body donation is a very unusual situation at our church. She told us that the pastor’s directions are to schedule the mass within 10 days or less; he will not want to postpone the mass for 12 weeks or longer waiting for the ashes to be returned.


  1. Is there something in Catholic law or USCCB guidelines that says a memorial mass needs to be offered within a brief window after death, if the remains can not be present for an immediate funeral mass? Is it a violation to postpone the mass until the ashes are present?
  2. If a memorial mass is offered now, can a funeral mass be offered later when the ashes have been returned for burial? If not, should we request a graveside service to bless the ashes?

Thank you for your help. My friend was passionate about bringing people to God, and saw the donation of her remains as a way to continue performing that mission after her soul had gone to heaven.


I think it would be best to ask the archdiocese these questions.


I don’t have citations, so excuse me.

But I do know that a whole body should be present for the funeral Mass. This is why when cremation is done, it is supposed to be done after the funeral.

I believe that with this in mind, the best bet would be to have the funeral, donate the body, and bury the remains after they are received back.


That doesn’t work. The university will want to pick up the body as soon as possible, usually directly from the hospital.

It’s true that, ideally, the body should be present for the funeral but there are many reasons why that might not be possible, even without donating the body: death & cremation in one location, funeral in another, is the first that comes to mind.


That doesn’t work. The university will want to pick up the body as soon as possible, usually directly from the hospital.

That’s what happened here. We live in a warm part of the country. Allowing the body to be held for a funeral before donation would subject it to temperatures that initiate decomposition, rendering it useless for most research. Traditional embalming would prevent the decomposition, but would also render the body useless for research and teaching. Special preservation techniques are required.

The ashes will eventually be returned to the family for proper burial, and will be blessed at that time.

My question is regarding the memorial/funeral mass. Is there a rule or guideline saying the mass needs to be offered within one to two weeks of death? And if we have a memorial mass now, will we still have the option for a full funeral mass (at the same church) when the ashes are returned for burial, or will we be limited to a graveside service?


I would suggest you keep asking, if it is still possible.
The reason I say that is because the Mass is ideally held with the body present, meaning you could speed up the funeral Mass and then have the University or whatever get the body.
It was always told to me as ideally meaning, to me at least, no laws had been made regarding this or if there are, not told me.
My M-I-L was cremated before her funeral Mass because no one told use to just wait till afterwards. A friend who had donated his body to science was in the same situation as you as the University got the body before they could have a Mass. Not sure what happened afterwards as the wife moved.
I would say hurry up so you have the body at the Mass. Make some calls to see if it can’t be done quicker and maybe the memorial could be for those who couldn’t make the funeral Mass?


I don’t think you understand the procedures required to preserve the remains for scientific research and/or medical school education. Standard embalming methods can’t be used on a body that will be dissected for research, they don’t make refrigerated coffins to keep bodies in during funeral masses, and Catholic funeral masses can’t be held in the funeral home refrigerator.

I don’t know when your MIL died, but in 1997 the Vatican approved having the cremains present at the funeral mass. There is no longer a great big rush to have a funeral before cremation, nor a refusal to bless the ashes afterwards.

Regardless, this has nothing to do with my original question:
Is there some sort of rule which says the mass for the newly deceased needs to be held within a week or two of death, or would it be permissible to delay the mass until the ashes are returned 12 weeks later so that the family can have a full funeral mass?

(As of today we don’t know whether the body will be used in a research program or be sent to the university. The 12 week period assumes the remains are studied in a research program. Obviously, if the remains were to go to the university where it would be used as a teaching tool for a year or more in the medical school’s Anatomy Lab, we WOULD have a Memorial Mass without further delay.)


I thought I understood your question, forgive me if I didn’t answer thoroughly.
"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” (no. 413)

Since your friends is an exception (time restraint), I would defer to what you find out with the priests there. But maybe that link will help some. Sorry for your loss.


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