Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
A reader writes:
As a practicing Catholic, can I be buried in a non-Catholic cemetery. No one in my family is Catholic except me and I would like to be buried with my family.
It’s a logical question, and an understandable desire.
It’s a logical question because many Catholic parishes and dioceses have cemeteries, and it would seem natural—as a Catholic—to be buried in one of these.
It’s an understandable desire to want to be buried with one’s family, where after your death your loved ones may still visit your grave, take care of it, and remember you. It’s a way of maintaining a connection with those you have left behind.
I could imagine someone saying, “Well, if your family isn’t Catholic, they won’t pray for you when they visit your grave. But if you were buried in a Catholic cemetery, then people would, and that would help you out even more after your death.”
You might get some extra prayer if you’re in a Catholic cemetery, but the Church prays for all of the departed, regardless of where they are buried. Also, you might get more prayer from non-Catholic relatives than you think. The heart knows things about the way to the dead that the head sometimes doesn’t, and I’ve seen non-Catholic members of my own family talk (i.e., pray) to departed loved ones—out loud—even though this isn’t part of their theological tradition. It’s only natural to also ask God to help, be merciful to, etc., one’s departed loved one, and the same thing happens in non-Catholic families, simply because the heart demands it, even if there is no theological rationale for it that they hear preached in church.
There’s also the fact that not being buried with one’s family could send a very confusing signal to them. In at least some cases it could be taken as a rejection of the family. That might not be rational, but—trust me—people get irrational at funeral time. And I can see a person judging that, in their own family’s case, it would be evangelistically unwise to set up a Catholic Church vs. the family paradigm in the minds of the bereaved.
I think it’s fair to say, then, that this is a complex and sensitive subject, with decisions being best made by those most involved, with the most knowledge of their own family situation.
Here is what the Code of Canon Law has to say
§1. If a parish has its own cemetery, the deceased members of the faithful must be buried in it unless the deceased or those competent to take care of the burial of the deceased have chosen another cemetery legitimately.
§2. Everyone, however, is permitted to choose the cemetery of burial unless prohibited by law.
The statement that if a parish has its own cemetery then the faithful “must” be buried is not intended to restrict the ability of the faithful to choose where they will be buried. Rather, it is meant to ensure that they will be able to be buried in the parish cemetery (i.e., the pastor is to grant permission for and preference to parishioners over non-parishioners if room is limited, etc.). That it is not meant to limit the ability to of the faithful to choose their place of burial is made explicit by the remainder of this canon, in which the ability of each person to choose the cemetery in which he will be buried is expressly protected as long as no other law is being violated.
The reference to other prohibitions by law appears to refer to particular laws that may exist in specific countries or dioceses. The Church’s universal law does not appear to contain any such prohibitions.
So the faithful have the ability to chose their place of burial, and it doesn’t have to be a Catholic cemetery. They are free to be buried in their family plot unless something else intervenes, which is highly unlikely if you’re just wanting to be buried with your family.
What happens in that case?
Sometimes people are concerned about whether they will be buried in “consecrated ground,” such as is found in a Catholic cemetery. While there graves can be blessed, and while this is desirable, it is not a sacrament and will not affect one’s eternal destiny. It is a way that the Church intervenes on behalf of the dead to implore God’s blessing on them. It is not, however, something available only in Catholic cemeteries. In another place, the Code of Canon Law provides:
Can. 1240 §1. Where possible, the Church is to have its own cemeteries or at least areas in civil cemeteries that are designated for the deceased members of the faithful and properly blessed.
§2. If this cannot be achieved, however, then individual graves are to be properly blessed.
So, in the case of a Catholic being buried in a family plot that belongs to a non-Catholic family, the thing to do would be to simply have that person’s grave blessed (the rite for this is found in the Order of Christian Funerals—the Church text used in this case). So one need not scruple on this point.
If the reader feels that it is best to be buried with the family, the Church’s law provides for this.