Outside of the church, the cemetery is one of my favorite and one of the most natural of places to pray. To step into a cemetery is to step onto ground that has been made hallowed by much prayer. It is a place of dignity – to be honored as sacred and worthy of great respect. Cemeteries gather us together, our closest family members with complete strangers, our present generation with all who have gone before us. They help us to appreciate more fully our shared humanity and the communion that God invites us to in Christ.
Often someone will ask me to explain the Catholic teaching regarding the cremation of our loved ones. It is true that until relatively recently the Church did not allow cremation. There always has been a preference in our faith to honor the natural processes of the body, allowing it to return gently to the earth, and to care tenderly for the body as an integral part of who we are. Yet now the Church recognizes that there may be legitimate reasons for a family to choose cremation for their loved ones.
The Church continues to insist, however, that the cremated remains be treated as sacred and with respect. That means that the remains should be placed in a worthy vessel and be buried in a blessed grave or entombed in a mausoleum or specially designated cemetery vault. If at all possible the site of entombment should be personalized – marked with a stone or plaque to memorialize the deceased.
The Church also asks that the remains never be scattered or divided or left in one's home. People would be appalled by the idea of keeping a deceased body at home indefinitely or dividing a body among family members. In addition, a burial or entombment expresses a sacred finality, an end to the wandering on this earth, and an ultimate rest. It is important too that there be a designated place for people (for anyone, because the deceased belongs to us all) to come back to in order to visit, to pray, and to show their respect for the deceased.
Memorial Day is an important day just as cemeteries are places of blessing. Together they are grace-filled gifts that anchor us, connect us, commit us, enrich us, and open our hearts to one another and to God. Take time to remember and to give thanks – to pray and to pledge the best of our care. Peace eternal.