All Souls’ Day: The Theology of a Catholic Cemetery

COMMENTARY: The month of November invites us to reflect on several vital truths about these sacred grounds.

St. Francis Xavier Catholic cemetery in Franconia, Minn.
St. Francis Xavier Catholic cemetery in Franconia, Minn. (photo: Linda McKusick / Shutterstock)

Catholics dedicate the month of November in a special way to pray for the dead. The Church even grants a plenary indulgence for the souls in Purgatory if a Catholic in a state of grace visits a cemetery between November 1 and 8, inclusive, and prays, even if only mentally, for the dead. (The usual conditions for a plenary indulgence — confession, Communion, prayer for the Pope’s intentions and detachment from sin — apply). 

Last year, given the COVID pandemic, the Vatican extended the period to obtain this indulgence to the entire month of November. And this has also been extended to this year. 

Perhaps we need to think about the meaning of a Catholic cemetery.

Once upon a time, the cemetery was an integral part of a Catholic parish. In parts of Europe, the parish cemetery was typically adjacent to the church. Think of British films, where people pass through the “churchyard” on the way to church.

As Catholic immigrants worked to build their parishes in the United States, they usually put their money into three things: a building for a church, a school, and a cemetery. With the decimation of parishes in this country through enforced episcopal “consolidation” or closure, sometimes all that’s left of a once-proud parish is its cemetery.

Parish cemeteries, like parochial schools, have also yielded for many years to diocesan takeover. These days, opening a new parish is rare, but a new parish also establishing its own cemetery is even rarer (though there have been cases here in Virginia).

Beyond the economics and policies and even sociology, however, we seem to have forgotten the theology of a cemetery.

Cemeteries remind us that the “Church” is not limited to the visible or to those of us, here and now, using parish envelopes. On the supernatural level, the Church is threefold: the Church Triumphant (in heaven), Church Suffering (in purgatory), and Church Militant (on earth). 

But even on the earthly, visible level, the Church cemetery reminds us of several vital truths. Cemeteries challenge a very “here and now” mentality that forgets those from whom this parish or ecclesial community came (just as our focus on the present makes us forget our responsibility for passing on what we have received).  

Cemeteries remind us that the “Church Community of X” in this city and town is merely at one stage in its own journey as the Church Militant towards the Church Suffering and/or Triumphant. What is especially true of parish cemeteries was they were continuities of neighbors: Those resting together really had physically prayed together in their churches. And cemeteries break the contemporary conspiracy of silence about death by reminding us, “as we are today, so will you be tomorrow.” 

Once upon a time we spoke of Catholic cemeteries as “hallowed” or “consecrated ground.” We don’t do so that much now, to our detriment. Those terms remind us that death is also — indeed, above all — a spiritual event, one lived within the context of the Church community. That is why Catholics traditionally and instinctively wanted to be buried in Catholic cemeteries. It’s also why the Church discouraged (if not outright forbade) municipal or “nonsectarian” cemeteries. 

It’s bad enough we’ve lost the ecclesiology of the Catholic cemetery. Increasing incidents of desecration of graveyards, especially in conjunction with Halloween, show how much we’ve lost the sense of the sacredness of final resting places … to the extent they still even exist.

With the widespread practice of cremation, even among Catholics (which the Church allows but still recommends burial), cemeteries are disappearing. Yes, today’s Catholic cemeteries run brisk businesses in “columbaria” (places to store ashes) and the most recent Vatican document on cremation does insist that cremated remains be placed in a cemetery. 

But cremation opened the door to treating the body as insignificant, something that could be destroyed. Just how many ashes are still kept on coffee tables, mantles, or closets, even in Catholic homes? There’s even an industry that fuses ashes into “keepsake jewelry.” Even more radically destructive disposal of the human body, for example, alkaline hydrolysis, are also gaining popular approval. 

Approximately 20 states legally allow “alkaline hydrolysis,” a process whereby the body is heated in water and potassium hydroxide to break it down into pure liquid that can be poured into a drain or otherwise dispersed. Other “organic” methods of accelerated decomposition deliberately break down the body, often so what’s left can be put to “use” in your garden or elsewhere in nature. 

The common denominator is there’s no need for cemeteries because the bodies are disappearing, deemed of no more significance than organic waste matter to be “recycled” for more “useful” purposes.

Catholics should be sounding the alarm about how far we have deviated from the Judeo-Christian of the body as “temple of the Holy Spirit.” I fear, however, that between the bishops’ silence and the laity’s tolerance, Catholics are onboard with this redefinition of the reality of human embodiment.

All the more reason to get thee to a cemetery — a Catholic cemetery — this November.