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October 11, 2009

Catholic cemeteries’ work spreads Gospel Convention offers opportunities to network, learn about new trends

By Michelle Martin


Cemeteries, they say, make quiet neighbors. But for those who are responsible for caring for Catholic cemeteries around the United States, recent months have been anything but quiet, as they are confronting a range of issues spurred by the scandal at Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip as well as questions raised by the slumping economy and changing trends in the disposition of human remains.

Through it all, they must remain focused on the work of reminding Catholics that death is not the end of life, just a passage to a new kind of life.

All of those topics were on the agenda of the 60th anniversary Catholic Cemetery Conference held in Chicago Sept. 29-Oct. 2.

Cemetery workers have many opportunities to evangelize among the faithful, especially those who might have moved away from the church, said Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Ore.

“They help people at a time of great grief,” said Archbishop Vlazny, who was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Chciago and served here as an auxiliary bishop. “The right word or gesture can connect people with their faith.”

Evangelizing with actions

Catholic cemetery staff can also evangelize with their actions, by, for example, stepping in to help families whose loved ones are buried at Burr Oak, a non-sectarian cemetery that historically served African-American families in south suburban Alsip, where four employees have been charged with digging up remains and reselling gravesites. The situation there was among the most-talkedabout topics at the convention, said Dennis Fairbanks, executive director of the conference.

Roman Szabelski, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Chicago, took on responsibility for day-to-day operations at the cemetery in July as a court-appointed receiver, trying to make sense of incomplete and damaged records and to get the cemetery back to a condition where it could be re-opened for visits from family members of those buried there.

In September, the cemetery passed back to control of its owner, Perpetua Holdings LLC, as part of bankruptcy proceedings, although Szabelski has agreed to remain as an unpaid consultant.

The publicity, which spread across the United States, led to many Catholic cemeteries fielding more inquiries from the loved ones of those buried in their facilities about what safeguards are in place to prevent similar situations.

Beverly Hampton, of the Catholic Cemeteries of the Diocese of Rockford, said she took many calls in the weeks after the news about Burr Oak first broke, but after she and employees explained their procedures, most people were satisfied.

Proposed legislation

In the meantime, Szabelski said, he and other cemeterians — as cemetery professionals call themselves — are watching proposed cemetery regulation legislation in Illinois and the U.S. Congress sparked by the Burr Oak scandal.

In general, Catholic cemeterians do not object to reasonable regulation, although they are concerned that some legislators might create undue burdens upon them if they don’t understand cemetery operations.

“We don’t mind regulation as long as it has a point,” Szabelski said. “We want good burial practices, and a lot of the things they are talking about — having a clear price schedule, for example — are things we already do.”

Another topic of discussion was the various ways of disposing of human remains, from traditional full-body burial — the preferred method under canon law — to cremation, which is allowed for Catholics, to a method that involves dissolving tissues in an alkaline solution, and how a trend toward “green burial” will play out.

Trend toward cremation

Many families who want to choose cremation do so from a sense that it is less expensive, said John O’Brien of the Diocese of Hamilton, Ontario. However, because Catholic teaching calls for cremated remains to be interred or entombed in a sacred space, it might be more expensive than they suspect.

However, the rate of cremation has inched up over the years. In Chicago, it increased about 1 percent a year for the last 10 to 15 years, with a 2 or 3 percent jump over the last year, to account for a total of about 20 percent of burials in Catholic cemeteries this year, Szabelski said.

The rate is similar in Ontario, O’Brien said. His cemetery system opened its own crematorium in 2003 so Catholics could have the entire process done under church auspices. In some Canadian provinces, the rate of cremation is 60 or 70 percent, he said.

The difference in the rate of cremation varies by diocese and by how accepting local ordinaries have been of the practice, O’Brien said.

Now some people are choosing cremation because they believe it is more socially or environmentally responsible, O’Brien said.

Others are advocating “green burials,” which essentially means burial with no embalming and no elaborate casket or burial vault, just the body in a pine box. Some enthusiasts say that to be truly green, such burials must be done in areas not maintained with the help of fossil fuels, with no manmade markers as well, which could present problems for families who want to visit the final resting places of their loved ones.

The process of “resomation,” or dissolving the body in an alkaline solution, has not been sanctioned by the church, and many cemetery representatives at the convention were skeptical that it would be because it can be seen as disrespectful to the human body.

Making choices early

Catholic cemeteries help families navigate the choices by encouraging people to make their burial plans before someone dies. In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, about 80 percent of families make their burial arrangements preneed, said Annabelle McGannon, executive director of the cemeteries there.

“It’s far better for Catholic families to think about what they want before there’s a need for it,” she said. “It’s getting Catholics to think about death not being the end of everything, but being the end of this life and the beginning of the next life. Death is not something to be dreaded. It can be something to be embraced.”

“We as Catholics have a very unique relationship with our deceased. We can pray for them, to help them get to heaven, and we can pray to them, asking them for their intercession. We call that the communion of saints,” Vlazny said.