Elsewhere in today’s Catholic Key you will read about the stewardship and oversight of a very important part of our diocese, our Catholic Cemeteries. I am so thankful to those who provide for this very sacred work. In the experience of human death, we believe and profess our belief in the Resurrection of Jesus, and our firm hope that those who die in Christ have the hope of eternal life.
Because we are a Church that looks beyond this world to the next, the care of those who have died – and the families who have lost loved ones – is something worth reflecting on. How we care for our loved ones, how we continue to remember them and pray for their eternal salvation is an important element of our Catholic faith.
The long tradition and history of our Catholic cemeteries bears testimony that we, as Catholics, have a great respect for the human body, before and after death. The funeral rites – the Rite of Christian Burial – demonstrate our belief that we shall rise again, in our bodies. It is through our earthly bodies that we have shown charity, love, and affection. It is using our bodies that we work, assist others, make sacrifices, and give glory to God. Our bodies, Sacred Scripture tells us, are Temples of the Holy Spirit. God Himself so loved us that Jesus took a human body in the mystery of the Incarnation. In that same human body, Jesus accepted physical suffering, and death on a Cross. This was the price of our redemption. Jesus Christ instituted the Eucharist, determined to leave us His own Body and Blood as food for eternal life. All these things, and many more that you may think of, are reasons why we treat the body with such respect and reverence: during life and after death.
The burial of the body is an important act of faith, and our Catholic cemeteries are consecrated ground – set aside for this one purpose, to provide a place for the lasting disposition of those who have gone before us. Catholic cemeteries are sacred property, and we are so blessed to have them.
Burial of the Body vs. Cremation
In generations past the Church did not allow cremation except in very extraordinary circumstances (like plague or in wartime). The act of cremation was seen as a possible denial of the belief that the body would rise again ‘at the last day’. In more recent times, as the Church allowed for cremation, (Catechism, no. 2300), it seems that the primacy of the burial of the body may have been diminished. The Church continues to favor the burial of the body, because of its importance in the living of the Catholic life and the “corporal” works of mercy. The introduction to the Rite of Christian Burial even recommends that, in case of cremation, the body be present for the Funeral Mass, and cremated afterward.
Whether the final disposition of the deceased is by burial or cremation, a few principles and practices must always be followed: 1) The body must be treated with reverence, and must have a permanent, marked place of repose. 2) Cremated remains may never be scattered, or kept privately. They must be permanently interred in a cemetery or proper columbarium. 3) The practice of cremation, which is always considered a lesser option to the burial of a body, may not be practiced as a denial of the resurrection of the body.
Even now, if you have the cremated remains of a loved one at home – not properly reposed – our Catholic cemetery personnel stand ready to assist you in this holy work.
As a priest for over 35 years, I have had the privilege of assisting and supporting families in the duties of burying their deceased loved ones. While the grief of the loss of a loved one is so often a sad burden, the acts of reverent prayer and burial, can be moments when faith and hope are deepened, when the meaning and passing nature of this life is better appreciated.
In some more recent practices – when the period of grief is truncated; when the funeral Mass is omitted, or the burial of the cremated remains never takes place, often the grieving is never fully realized and can leave one or more family members, friends or loved ones, feeling incomplete. These rites of death, grieving, and burial have a long and significant history in human experience. They are not only a sign and an act of respect for the person who has died and passed to eternal life; they are also vital to us and to our own experience of faith at the time when we are confronted with the reality and mystery of death.
I urge you to make use of our Catholic cemeteries; to call upon our priests and their parish staff members to assist you at the moment of loss. They are ready to help you in these most special moments to prepare the beautiful funeral liturgy: to commend your loved ones to the Father of Mercies, to lay your loved one to rest with reverence and respect.
Let us pray for those who have died. Eternal rest, grant unto your servants O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
Mary, Mother of the Church, Mother of All Souls, pray for us!