Why Visit a Catholic Cemetery Today?

Praying for the dead and attending to their graves bears witness to a community of faith; visiting cemeteries is visiting another ‘part’ of the Church.

(photo: Pixabay)

Catholics of a certain age remember the term “sacramentals.” They are “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1667). They “are instituted for the sanctification of certain ministries of the Church, certain states of life, a great variety of circumstances in Christian life, and the use of many things helpful to man” (1668). Popularly understood, examples of sacramentals include blessings, holy water, scapulars and palms.

And Catholic cemeteries.

November is the month the Church especially dedicates to praying for the dead. To encourage this holy practice, the Church offers a daily plenary indulgence for the souls in purgatory, under the usual conditions (right intention, confession, Communion, prayer for the intentions of the Pope) to those who visit a cemetery in the period of Nov. 1-8. She offers a partial indulgence at other times.

Once upon a time, Catholic cemeteries were a normal feature of almost every Catholic parish. Over the course of time (and by a kind of negligence of subsidiarity), dioceses got into the cemetery “business.” Some parishes today are resuming the local graveyard: Here in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, for example, one parish is trying to establish its own cemetery.

What is so important about the cemetery as sacramental? And why visit a cemetery today?  Three reasons:

Visibility. Although ours has been called a “culture of death,” it’s paradoxical that we want to make death as invisible as possible. People today mostly die in hospitals, not in their homes. Young people are often shielded from funerals, on the assumption that death would be too “traumatic.” Wakes have shrunk, sometimes to only the evening or a few hours before a funeral, and funerals themselves — thanks to morgues — can now be scheduled at the convenience of the living rather than the demands of the dead.

Cremation is growing in popularity. Some report that cremation has overtaken earth burial, at least in parts of the country, and Catholic practice is not very different from non-Catholic, despite the Church’s preference for the burial of remains. (The Church requires ashes be kept in a sacred space and prohibits the scattering or dividing or wearing of ashes from cremation.)  The disappearance of death is now often linked with the disappearing body: In lieu of a funeral, people talk about “memorial services,” and one often hears the platitude that “funerals are about the living, not the dead.”

Well, they’re not.

If we believe in the continuity of this life and the next, funerals are about both the living and the dead. They are about the dead as an opportunity to reckon with someone’s passing and their need for prayer. They are about the living as a salutary reminder that where he is today I will be one day.

Somehow, a little box or sealed urn doesn’t quite send that message.

History. Parish cemeteries used to reinforce the notion of community. When I visit my maternal grandmother’s grave, I recognize among whom she is lying. These people were Catholics together in life, and now they are together in death. That’s history.

With modern mobility and today’s mega-cemetery, one can ask with the lawyer in Luke’s Parable of the Good Samaritan: “And who is my neighbor?” I can honestly say, when I visit my parents’ grave in an archdiocesan cemetery, that I have no idea amongst whom they lie. Not only do we now bowl alone, we are buried alone. And that reinforces the Western illusion of the “rugged individual,” bereft of social ties. Yes, the Catholic cemetery still bears witness to a community of faith, but a community usually presupposes the observation of the old Cheers theme song: “You wanna go where everybody knows your name.”

Sacramental. We used to call cemeteries “hallowed” ground. (It’s useful to remember that during Halloween week, when incidents sometimes occur profaning that hallowed ground.)  Cemeteries remind us that the human body, even when dead, is sacred, a temple of the Holy Spirit.

That sacramental meaning of the body is being slowly — perhaps not intentionally, but nevertheless, effectively — eviscerated by the growing popularity of cremation. Can we have discussions in parishes and dioceses about how to reduce the funeral costs that drive the popularity of cremation?

There is a need for the visible Catholic cemetery, with tombs, symbols and the dead. The Catholic cemetery reminds us that there is another understanding of life’s meaning and goal, one different from the agnostic shrug and questioning eyes the modern world offers.

And, during November, how about the parish organizing a visit to the cemetery? I remember, as a child, the annual procession at our parish cemetery on a November Sunday. Like the Corpus Christi or Good Friday processions which, in some places, are taking place more and more in public, a cemetery procession is a public witness to our faith in “the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.”

I know that there is a practice in some places to celebrate Mass in a cemetery chapel in November and/or Memorial Day. Recognizing that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11), I applaud that practice, but recommend also that the cemetery procession be included: The graveyard should be included physically in that commemoration. Distinctive Catholic practices of piety are worth preserving, because “a correct and wise application of the many riches of popular piety” that inspire and build up spirituality (see “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy,” 12 and 260) is important.

I also wrote of this activity as affirming the “bond of the living and the dead.” The cemetery is an extension of the Church, not just as a sacramental, but as the final resting place of those who are part of the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant. The “communion of saints” is part of ecclesiology. Visiting cemeteries is, therefore, visiting another “part” of the Church.

So why go visit a Catholic cemetery in these days? Besides the sacramental, ecclesiological significance and the witness the graveyard (and our presence) gives to the dignity of the body, remember, there’s still one valuable reason: You can do something of eternal worth for the faithful departed by gaining an indulgence for them. Consider it a networking opportunity: It’s good having friends in high places.

John M. Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.