Retired Catholic Cemeteries director reflects on four decades in field

| May 15, 2019 | 0 Comments
John Cherek stands in Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights in October. He retired in December after 28 years as director of The Catholic Cemeteries.

John Cherek stands in Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights in October. He retired in December after 28 years as director of The Catholic Cemeteries. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

John Cherek didn’t set out to work in cemeteries. In 1981, he was working as a parish administrator at St. Mary of the Lake in White Bear Lake when the pastor, Father Michael Kennedy, told him that he was going to be in charge of the parish cemetery.

The responsibilities dovetailed with his job — there were records to be kept, maintenance to be coordinated, plots to be sold.

But there was also a pastoral component — families to be consoled, challenges to be navigated, deep questions to be answered — and for that, Cherek was able to draw on his master’s degree in theology and seven years experience as a director of religious education.

Within months, the cemetery work was the favorite part of Cherek’s job. And that love compelled him in 1989 to apply for director of The Catholic Cemeteries, a Twin Cities religious corporation that oversees the care of five Catholic cemeteries, provides education on funeral and burial pre-planning, and serves as a consultant to the roughly 110 Catholic parish cemeteries in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as others elsewhere. He started the job in 1990.

At the end of December, Cherek, 70, retired after 28 years as The Catholic Cemeteries’ director. Under his leadership, the organization grew from acting “as an island” to having strong relationships with parishes and a focus on the corporal work of mercy it offers in burying the dead, he said.

With Cherek’s retirement, Joan Gecik became Catholic Cemeteries’ new director, bringing with her more than 40 years of parish leadership experience. Prior to her position with The Catholic Cemeteries, she was pastoral administrator at St. Thomas the Apostle in Minneapolis.

Cherek compared his work at The Catholic Cemeteries to being a city manager. Each cemetery has its own infrastructure, record keeping, employees and clients, he explained, and each site requires relationship-building with representatives from different entities, such as the city in which it’s located. In nearly three decades as the director, none of Cherek’s days were the same.

“There’s always a project that needs to be managed,” he said. “It’s so multifaceted.”

Some days in Cherek’s work with cemeteries, however, were more eventful than others. In 1987 or 1988, when he was still at St. Mary of the Lake, a frequent visitor to its cemetery called the parish office to tell Cherek that something was going on at the cemetery, and that he had better get down there. He and the maintenance man jumped in the car, and when they arrived, Cherek noted large trucks and a TV crew. He also recognized a woman.

As he headed toward her, another woman came over to introduce herself. “I’m Diane Sawyer,” she said. The TV crew was from “60 Minutes.”

The woman he recognized first had been in the local news. She had given up her son for adoption, and she had learned he had died at age 3. With changes in the law, she was able to find his adoptive parents and locate his grave — there, at St. Mary of the Lake’s cemetery. In the process, a horrible truth came out: The adoptive mother had abused the boy, Dennis, causing his death in 1965. The birth mother fought for justice, and the boy’s body was exhumed in 1987 and found to show signs of trauma corroborating the accusation. The adoptive mother was arrested, tried and convicted, and then sent to prison.

The situation was the most tragic Cherek encountered in working with cemeteries, he said, but it illustrated for him that a person’s story isn’t necessarily over when his or her body is put into the ground.

As at St. Mary of the Lake, Cherek’s role at The Catholic Cemeteries required him to navigate sensitive and sometimes dramatic family situations, especially as norms around burial have changed. With cremation numbers on the rise, it’s become more common for family members to delay a loved one’s funeral after his or her death for a variety of reasons. That delay, however, can become indefinite, and that’s something Cherek wanted to help families avoid.

Part of his work was educating Catholics about the Church’s teaching on what is necessary and what is preferred in funeral practices.

The Church recommends, for example, that the deceased’s body be present for the funeral Mass, even if cremation is planned for interment. The Church requires cremated remains to be buried in the ground or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium — a space especially for cremated remains — and the Church prohibits them from being scattered or kept in a home.

In reality, however, many Catholics are ignoring Church guidance, which in some circumstances has resulted in the remains being forgotten or discarded.

Cherek recalled one situation in which two adult children discovered, while cleaning their mother’s home following her death, that their father’s ashes had been kept for years in the garage. They came to The Catholic Cemeteries for advice. Others have simply abandoned cremated remains at The Catholic Cemeteries’ offices.

With secular funeral trends moving away from funerals and burials in favor of personalized rituals, “celebrations of life” and scattering cremated remains, memorializing the deceased has changed, too. In lieu of headstones, internet-based remembrances in “virtual cemeteries” are growing in popularity.

“The interesting thing now is even with Catholics, it’s like we have to communicate to them the value of permanent memorialization,” Cherek said. “The Church considers the cemetery a sacred space. The other sacred space is the church. … The tradition has always been to bury the body within the community. Based on that tradition and the belief of the sacredness of human life and dignity … we (the Church) want your bodily remains to be buried and your name to be memorialized.”

Cherek was intentional about the pastoral aspect of his role, and he emphasized that with his staff.

“We’re called to act compassionately and be of service to them,” he said of the families with whom Catholic Cemeteries works. “Mercy is the predominant virtue,” especially when having to say “no” to someone’s request for a practice outside of the cemetery’s or Church’s parameters, he said.

“We have to look at ways we can be compassionate and merciful, especially given the position of the Church now, with so many people not connected to a parish or the tradition itself,” he said.

Twenty-two years ago, he launched an annual “Mission Day,” when The Catholic Cemeteries’ 25 full-time staff members reflect on the nature of their work. He lists it among his proudest accomplishments.

Other accomplishments include expanding four of the five cemeteries’ burial capacities through the elimination of roads and the addition of mausoleums and columbariums, as well as digitizing the organization’s records, implementing its “Heritage” newsletter, securing the organization’s financial stability, and, at Resurrection, establishing a section for natural burial. (See story on page 16).

Although Cherek has worked in cemeteries for nearly four decades, nothing taught him more about grieving, he said, than burying his oldest daughter, Kristen, who had an undiagnosed heart condition and died in 1993 of sudden cardiac arrest as a sophomore at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Cherek was 45 at the time.

“When a death occurs in your family, it touches you in ways you can’t imagine or predict,” said Cherek, who has three living children. “Experiencing her death gave me an insight (into) grief.”

Kristen’s death inspired Cherek and his wife, Linda, to get involved with bereavement ministry at St. Mary of the Lake. Linda became a clinical social worker and therapist who specializes in helping clients work through grief, and both she and John served in leadership positions with the National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved.

In retirement, Cherek is traveling and spending time with family. He also remains involved in St. Mary of the Lake’s ministry of consolation, which supports parishioners grieving loss.

As for the future of The Catholic Cemeteries, “there’s possibilities for growth,” he said, “and I think Joan is the right person to do that.”

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