Catholic cemeteries: Steeped in fath and tradition

cemeteries

by Therese Horvat
Special to The Leaven

With the month of November traditionally given to remembrance of the deceased, many churches offer special prayers for the faithful departed or give parishioners and visitors the opportunity to write names of departed loved ones in remembrance books. Catholic cemeteries — another time-honored tradition of the Catholic Church — are visible signs of this opportunity for remembering year-round.

Robert W. Chenoweth, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of Northeast Kansas, explains that the history of Christian burial is rooted in key beliefs of Catholicism. In the context of those beliefs, the ministry of Catholic cemeteries has responded to needs of parishioners in changing times and circumstances.

History of Christian burial steeped in Catholic faith

In worlds ruled by ancient Greece and Rome, the custom was to cremate bodies of the deceased. As recorded in the Old and New Testaments, the Jewish faith believed in burial. A provision in Roman law allowed the Jews to band together into a funeral society or mutual aid organization where members contributed a certain amount to bury the dead underground in catacombs.

From the early years of the church, Christians followed suit and adopted the Jewish custom for burial of the dead, based on their belief in the resurrection of the body. Even before church buildings existed, there were cemeteries established as church institutions.

The first Catholic cemeteries were intricately constructed catacombs two and three levels below ground. They were ornamented with frescoes and inscriptions. Workers selected to dig graves and maintain these early cemeteries were among the first organized groups of Catholic lay action in the history of the church.

This ministry continued to evolve. Churches were built over tombs. In villages, the pattern developed of burying the dead in space adjacent to churches — churchyards. The care of the dead became a recognized ministry of parishes. The church also identified burial of the dead as a corporal work of mercy.

Over time — particularly in urban areas — dioceses created larger cemeteries due to space constraints. Efforts to maintain and improve cemeteries, enhance services and provide for perpetual care led to the formation of management structures similar to Catholic Cemeteries of Northeast Kansas.

To this day, Chenoweth says, the key principles that govern the ministry of Catholic cemeteries flow from tenets of the Catholic faith. Catholics believe that the human body is deserving of respect and dignity in life and death because it is God’s creation, because Christ became man, and because persons are temples of the Holy Spirit.

In addition, Catholicism professes belief in the resurrection of the body at the end of time and in eternal life.

In “A Vision for the Millennium,” the National Catholic Cemetery Conference summarizes: “The Catholic cemetery, then, is sacred, not only because of a blessing or consecration [of the ground], but also by the sacred function that it performs on behalf of the entire Christian community: It holds the bodies, once temples of the Holy Spirit, until the Lord comes again in glory. It is sacred because it is a place where prayer and liturgy are celebrated. It serves as a symbol of the extended community of believers, a community unbroken by death.”

Catholic Cemeteries of Northeast Kansas

The mission statement of Catholic Cemeteries of Northeast Kansas reflects these key roles: “As a ministry of the Catholic Church, we bury the dead with dignity and respect; we comfort the living with compassion and concern; and we provide sacred space for remembering.”

This mission statement encompasses extensive services that range from pre-need planning to at-need arrangements when a person dies, and from the sale of monuments to the coordination of rituals to commemorate special observances.

Available services vary, said Chenoweth, based on each of the nine locations managed by Catholic Cemeteries.

For example, the larger cemeteries have mausoleums, several have columbaria for cremated remains, and many feature special outdoor memorials and statuary.

“We take great care to beautify and maintain our cemeteries as sacred places,” said Chenoweth, “and to offer services that are competitively priced so as to encourage families to use Catholic cemeteries as requested by the bishops of the United States.”

Consistent across the nine locations is the commitment of Catholic Cemeteries’ staff to be sensitive to needs of individuals and families and to accommodate their wishes in alignment with practices approved by the church. Increasingly, this includes the popularity of cremation as a church-approved alternative to traditional ground burials.

Perspectives on cremation

While burial or interment of bodies remains the preferred practice, the church has permitted cremation since 1963, “provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2301).

In 1997, cremation was incorporated into the Order of Christian Funerals, allowing cremated remains to be present at the funeral Mass. Msgr. Thomas Tank, pastor of Church of the Ascension in Overland Park, says that the preference is that the body be present for the funeral Mass with cremation afterwards, if possible.

Father Kent O’Connor, pastor of Our Lady of Unity in Kansas City, Kansas, says that what is important with cremation is that cremated remains (cremains) receive the same level of respect shown to the body of the deceased.

Father Mark Mertes, pastor of Blessed Sacrament, Christ the King and Our Lady & St. Rose — all in Kansas City, Kansas — expresses this in practical terms: “We are asked to treat the cremains in the same way as we would a body. We wouldn’t put a body on the mantel in our home.”

The church’s teaching is that cremated remains should be stored in a proper vessel or container and buried or placed in a columbarium or mausoleum.

“It’s very important all of the cremains remain together and not be scattered or placed in an urn on the mantel or in a closet,” said Msgr. Tank.

This deep respect for the cremains that are the ashes of a former physical body emphasizes that cremation is not the final disposition or step in the funeral rite. The rite of committal — the part in the funeral rite when the remains are laid to rest — is.

“This makes the commitment of the deceased person to God complete,” said Father Jerry Volz, pastor of Prince of Peace in Olathe and vice chairman of Catholic Cemeteries board of trustees.

“The rite of committal serves the purpose of helping families and individuals deal with the loss of a loved one,” he said. “Letting go of the physical aspects of the body or the ashes is important to strengthening people in their mourning and healing their loss.

“Out of respect and love for the deceased, we are committing them back to God.”

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