By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY | Published November 10, 2011
The month of November has long been associated with the Church’s ceaseless prayer for our faithful departed loved ones, our own dear deceased relatives and friends “who have gone before us with the sign of faith.” Each one of us holds within his or her own heart the memories of some departed loved one. We earnestly pray for our beloved dead, and we keep their memories ever close to heart.
Visiting a cemetery is a tradition for many people as an expression of their love for those who have enriched our lives with their affection and goodness. However, especially over the last century we have become a very mobile people and Atlanta is now populated with thousands of folks who have moved here from many other regions in our nation—and many from countries well beyond. It is not possible for many of us to visit the graves of our loved ones as we might have done in the past or would like to do today. Yet we all seek ways of remembering our beloved departed relatives and friends.
Grieving is a very human and spiritual emotion for it is an expression of the residual love that we have for those who have gone before us. Many families may currently have family cemetery plots in the places from which they have moved and therefore because of distance they cannot visit those sites as frequently as they might want.
Funeral traditions have also evolved over the years, and cremation is now a much more common practice for Catholics. Cremation was once vigorously denounced and normally prohibited by the Church for Catholics in the United States because it was once identified as an expression of anti-Catholic attitudes and beliefs. Cremation has long been a common tradition in many other places where available land was much more limited and the practice was not identified with anti-Catholic sentiments.
The Church still prefers the custom of the burial of the human body but now explicitly permits cremation as another suitable way of disposing of human remains. The question lingers of how fittingly to care for the cremated remains. Catholic teaching insists that even these cremated remains must be treated with the dignity that they deserve as the relics of a human person who has been consecrated by the Sacraments and awaits the fulfillment of life in the resurrection of the dead that we all anticipate and foresee in Christ.
Some of our priests recently have informed me that sometimes the cremated remains of a person may not have been given a final or suitable disposition. Occasionally people may delay in deciding upon a fitting repository for cremated remains, such as a niche within a columbarium or burial in a safe and sacred place in a cemetery or memorial garden specifically designed for their repose. Some people may even keep them at home, trying to decide where they will finally be placed. Others have chosen to divide them among family members or scatter them in a garden; others have even just misplaced them. Clearly, the Church does not sanction such options since these do not respect the integrity and dignity of the human body—even the remains of a cremated human body. We may have all read stories of how the cremated remains of a person have been lost or stolen or simply treated as the residue of a person’s effects—like neglected silverware or crystal—certainly not in keeping with our faith in the resurrection of the dead and our destiny to one day live with God and His saints in paradise.
The Trappist monastery in Conyers has developed a welcome option for Christian burial in a green-space cemetery where the bodies of the faithful can be buried in the most simple and environmentally friendly manner, so that the remains quickly commingle with the elements of the natural earth without disturbing the delicate balance of nature. Cremated remains may also be interred at this monastic cemetery.
Our archdiocesan Office for Divine Worship published a helpful brochure of some guidelines for Catholic burial practices entitled: “We Believe in the Resurrection of the Dead” that can be found on our archdiocesan website at www.archatl.com/offices/odw.
Cemeteries everywhere are sacred places. Even in a secular society such as ours, we respect Arlington National Cemetery as a hallowed federal site and many of us were recently offended to learn that some of those entrusted with presiding over the interments of our military heroes had carelessly lost records and perhaps buried the deceased in the wrong graves. Even those who profess no particular religious faith pause in reverent silence at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
We must care for the remains of those we love with reverence and dignity, and because we are Catholics we also do that with a deep faith in the resurrection of the dead.