Dear friends in the Lord:
As we begin this Lenten Season, in which we reflect on the passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord, I offer this reflection on our own deaths and resurrections, and on the burial traditions of our faith. The ashes we received yesterday remind us of our own immortality!
One of the unsung heroes of the Gospels is Joseph of Arimathea, whom we’ll hear about again on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. You’ll recall he was the “virtuous and righteous man” who asked Pontius Pilate for permission to remove Jesus’ lifeless body from the cross late on Good Friday afternoon. Joseph carefully wrapped Jesus in a linen shroud, according to Jewish tradition, and laid him gently in the new rock-hewn tomb he had planned to use for his own family.
We don’t know a lot about Joseph of Arimathea. The Gospels suggest he was a secret disciple of Christ, and a “member of the council (who) had not consented to their plan.” He was probably grief-stricken, exhausted, and confused after the arrest and execution of Jesus. Yet, he understood the importance of adhering to tradition. Joseph of Arimathea probably also knew that, without his action, Jesus would have been buried before sunset with other criminals to fulfill the law at the time.
We have a lot in common with Joseph of Arimathea, don’t we? When a loved one dies, we are sad, somewhat numb, and always at a loss. But, we want to do the right thing. At that sad moment, we may not be thinking of the Resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday, and all of the faithful on the Last Day, but we know from our Catholic faith that, with our hope, and the mercy of the cross, we will be with Jesus and our loved ones in heaven. And, we know that the rituals and traditions of our Catholic funeral mirror the promise of the Resurrection.
Burial in the hallowed ground of a Catholic cemetery reminds us of the burial of Jesus, and expresses hope in our own resurrection, when body and soul will be reunited. Our earthly body is an essential part of our human identity and serves as a vessel for our immortal souls. The Catholic Church insists that the departed body be treated with respect, and so it ought to be laid to rest in consecrated ground. This is such an important belief that we consider it a corporal work of mercy: “to bury the dead.”
It’s not difficult to find a Catholic cemetery in our archdiocese. Many parishes have their own idyllic cemeteries, and we have four beautiful archdiocesan cemeteries: Calvary in Queens, Gate of Heaven in Westchester, Resurrection in Staten Island, and Ascension in Rockland.
Every Catholic is strongly encouraged to be buried in a Catholic cemetery. This is why I was concerned when I heard, primarily through priests serving in Hispanic parishes across the archdiocese, about a decrease in the number of families adhering to our long-held Catholic traditions of bereavement and burial, because the costs are sometimes prohibitive for families with limited means. Seeking an understanding of the reasons for this, I requested our cemetery professionals to consult with priests, funeral directors, and other knowledgeable parties. Having studied these issues over the past year, the archdiocese is responding to the expressed needs of the faithful through the introduction of various initiatives.
Each archdiocesan (not parish) cemetery will continue to have a Saint Francis of Assisi Section, for any deceased person declared indigent by local civil authorities. They will be buried in a casket or their cremated remains will be inurned and buried at no cost with their names engraved on a communal marker.
Gate of Heaven, Resurrection, and Ascension Cemeteries will have a Guardian Angel Section for the burials of stillborn children at no cost with their names engraved on a communal marker.
Almost every time I visit a parish, someone will approach me and, in an embarrassed aside, tell me that the cremated remains of a loved one are still at home, asking, “What should I do?” Last August 15, on the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome issued a document approved by Pope Francis, To Rise With Christ. It is an instruction “regarding the burial of the deceased and the conservation of the ashes in the case of cremation.” (Cremation has been permitted by the Church since the Second Vatican Council—1963—provided that it is not done as an act of denial of the belief in the Resurrection.) While the instruction does not introduce new practices, it underscores a preference for burial of the body. It also confirms that cremated remains must be buried with the same respect and dignity associated with a full-body burial, and that cremated remains must not be retained at home or be scattered. Ashes are supposed to be reserved in sacred places, namely Catholic cemeteries, to make sure that the deceased is memorialized and included in the prayers and remembrances of the entire believing community. Entrusting cremated remains to a Catholic cemetery ensures they will not be discarded or disrespected as the memory of the deceased fades from generation to generation. Our archdiocesan (and some parish) cemeteries have many options for the permanent care of cremated remains, including in-ground burial and placement in niches in well-lit columbaria buildings. The final resting places are marked with the names of the deceased. Additionally, for those with limited means, each archdiocesan (not parish) cemetery will have a Saint Joseph of Arimathea Section, for the burial of cremated remains with the names of the deceased engraved on a communal marker for $250. At Gate of Heaven, Resurrection, and Ascension Cemeteries, a limited number of niches are available for only $1,000.
Ascension Cemetery will have a Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Section, emphasizing their love and mercy, when the standard burial, described in the following paragraph in detail, is unaffordable. With a letter from the deceased’s pastor attesting to limited means and an assurance that a Catholic funeral Mass is scheduled at the parish, the deceased will be buried in a full casket grave for $3,500, on average, less than half the regular cost, with each burial site identified by a slant marker bearing the deceased’s name that will be provided by the cemetery.
As the final option, all of our archdiocesan (and some, but not all, of our parish cemeteries) naturally will continue to offer the standard, traditional Catholic burial with the choices of in-ground burials in single, double, or family plots having personalized stone monuments or above-ground burials in family or communal mausoleums with standard memorialization.
For burials in our Catholic cemeteries, archdiocesan and parish, it must be documented, usually by way of a baptismal certificate, that the deceased is Catholic. Exceptions are made for non-Catholics who are spouses of Catholics, and others who are in the bloodline of an already buried Catholic.
As your archbishop, I am committed to doing all that I can to see that our deceased Catholics receive a funeral Mass and are buried in a Catholic cemetery. Please keep these various options in mind, which now make Catholic burials in our archdiocesan cemeteries available and affordable to just about everyone. During this Lenten Season, you might want to identify the option that best meets the preferences and financial needs of you and your loved ones, and take this opportunity to secure and/or plan for a burial in the sacred space of a Catholic cemetery.
In closing, allow me a few final comments. Keep in mind that some of our parishes have cemeteries, outstanding ones like St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, and you and/or your loved ones might prefer a more local burial. At our four archdiocesan cemeteries, weekly, monthly, and holy day Masses are celebrated for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed: Above all, please remember that all Catholics are strongly encouraged by the Church to request for themselves and to plan for their loved ones a funeral Mass and a burial in a Catholic cemetery. Hopefully, the new and various options outlined in this letter will aid in this encouragement.
Death and eternal life...good thoughts for the opening of Lent.
P.S.: The names, phone numbers, and websites of our four archdiocesan cemeteries are:
Ascension Cemetery, Airmont 845-352-7220 www.ascensioncemeteryrockland.com
Calvary Cemetery, Woodside 718-786-8000 www.calvarycemeteryqueens.com
Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne 914-769-3672 www.gateofheavenny.com
Resurrection Cemetery, Staten Island 718-356-7738 www.resurrectioncemeterystatenisland.com