We’ve just celebrated Memorial Day, a beautiful occasion on which we fittingly remember and honor those who have given their lives in the service of our nation and also those who have served and continue to serve in the military.
It’s also a time when many of us visit our local Catholic cemeteries — to visit our beloved deceased, plant some flowers and say a little prayer. In that context I thought it might be appropriate to say a few words about the Catholic cemeteries in the Diocese of Providence — a very important but sometimes under-appreciated ministry of the Church. First, a few statistics.
In the Diocese of Providence there are seven Catholic cemeteries that are directly owned and operated by the Diocese – St. Ann in Cranston; Gate of Heaven in East Providence; Mt. St. Mary in Pawtucket/East Providence; St. Francis in Pawtucket/Providence; Resurrection in Cumberland; St. Joseph in West Greenwich; and St. Columba in Middletown. On average, our diocesan cemeteries receive approximately 2,700 burials a year. By far the largest operation is at St. Ann Cemetery which by itself handles almost half of the total number.
We are very proud of our cemeteries. They are peaceful, prayerful and well-maintained properties. The management and staff of our cemeteries deserve a lot of credit for the hard work and personal dedication they bring to their ministry. And burying the dead is indeed a ministry of the Church, one of the traditional corporal works of mercy.
To that point, in 1997 the National Catholic Cemeteries Conference published an informative little resource entitled, “The Catholic Cemetery: A Vision for the Millennium.” The document begins with this: “In the life of every Christian person, there comes that time when we are faced with the death of someone we love. At that moment we rely upon our faith in Jesus and His promise of resurrection to all who believe . . . And as the final gesture of leave taking, we gather in a Catholic cemetery and there we entrust the remains of the one we love to others.”
The booklet goes on to highlight some basic Catholic principles regarding Catholic funerals, burials and cemeteries, including the following:
• Catholic cemeteries exist because of our belief in the resurrection of the body at the end of time. Just as the human body deserves to be treated with dignity and respect in life, so should it be treated in death. The Catholic cemetery is a tangible place of catechesis that gently teaches the Catholic belief in the resurrection through the witness of the lives who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.
• A Catholic cemetery is a sacred place, not only because of its consecration, but also by the sacred function that it performs on behalf of the Christian community: it holds the bodies, the temples of the Holy Spirit, until the Lord comes again in glory. It is sacred also because it is a place where prayer and liturgy are often celebrated.
• Because of the eschatological nature of the Church, a Catholic cemetery serves the Church by spanning the kingdom now present and the kingdom yet to come. It compels all who pass through it, or by it, to reflect on their own mortality and the future that awaits them.
These principles about Catholic cemeteries are expressions of our essential faith and deserve our careful attention. They also lead to some very practical considerations for us.
First, although Catholics are not obliged to be buried in a Catholic cemetery, it is certainly a good and noble practice. Using blessed or consecrated ground for burial is a fitting end of a journey for someone who was always surrounded and supported by a community of faith. Burial in a Catholic cemetery reminds us that “both in life and in death we belong to the Lord.” (Rom 14:8)
Secondly, because a Catholic cemetery is sacred space, when we visit a cemetery we should act accordingly. Because I actually reside on cemetery property and frequently walk the grounds, I’ve seen and heard lots of troubling behavior: motorcyclists speeding and doing “wheelies” on the driveways; visitors leaving their trash — sandwich bags, plastic cups and empty cigarette packs — along the side of the road for someone else to deal with; loud and obnoxious conversations. There’s certainly nothing wrong with bringing a sense of joy and life to the cemetery when we visit, but we should always be respectful and mindful of the sacred space we’re in as well as the emotional and spiritual needs of others.
Finally, because the body of a deceased Christian has been anointed with sacred oil and is the “Temple of the Holy Spirit,” it should always treated with respect. (It’s for the same reason, by the way that I’m uneasy with the excessive tattooing and body piercing now so common, but that’s for another day!)
The proper disposition of the body of a Christian has become particularly problematic with the frequency of cremation. The Church does not oppose cremation in all circumstances, but people have become increasingly casual and even frivolous in handling the ashes of the deceased. They cannot be scattered, taken home for display on the bookshelf, or incorporated into jewelry or good luck charms. The cremated remains must be properly buried or enshrined in a mausoleum.
To sum it all up — the Catholic Faith has a beautiful and uplifting vision of life, death and resurrection. Our Catholic cemeteries are noble and sacred places where that vision is maintained and our faith is on full display.