Cemeteries in our lives — and at the end of our lives

| Archbishop Bernard Hebda | May 16, 2019 | 0 Comments

In my years of service as a priest and bishop, I have always welcomed the opportunity each Memorial Day to schedule a Mass or service of remembrance in one of our Catholic cemeteries. They are moments not only to recall the heroic selflessness of those who made the supreme sacrifice in the service of our country, but also to recall more broadly our ongoing connection with those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith.

It sounds a little odd in hindsight, but I always felt particularly at home in the parish cemetery where all four of my grandparents and two of my great-grandparents were buried, along with lots of aunts and uncles. My mom would always pack a picnic lunch when we would go to St. Adalbert’s cemetery to pray and to tend the flowers. We would wander through the cemetery carrying sprinkler cans filled with water, and my dad would pronounce all of the long Polish names along the way — defying the rules of phonics that I was learning in school — and telling us a little about each of the families and praying for them, especially those whose graves were marked by a flag. When I finally learned to read, my mom would have me sit on the headstone and read to my grandparents and great-grandparents. They never complained about my mistakes.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda

Archbishop Bernard Hebda

I first learned to ride a bike in that cemetery, and I would return each Memorial Day with red, white and blue crepe paper laced through the spokes, winding through the hundred or so flags that marked the graves of deceased veterans. I would later learn to drive a car in that cemetery as well. I can still hear my dad telling me to veer right at the priest plot and start my turn to the left at the Wilamowski’s.

As providence would have it, St. Adalbert was one of the six cemeteries for which I was responsible in my first real parish assignment. I earned a whole new set of memories in that context, cementing my conviction that Catholic cemeteries are an important extension of the faith that we celebrate each day at the altar. My parents and I bought a plot in St. Adalbert, never anticipating that the future would take them to Florida and me to Minnesota.

I’m grateful that we’re blessed with some magnificent Catholic cemeteries in this part of the Lord’s vineyard. They speak of the rich history of our Church and point to our Catholic understanding of life everlasting, all the while reflecting the changing sensibilities associated with Christian burial.

One of the more recent developments involves the option of natural burial. The Catholic Cemeteries has been preparing a new section of Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights that will be particularly for natural burials. Those preferring to forgo embalming and unite the body more directly with the earth now have the option of being buried in that section of the cemetery, one that is beginning to look once again more like an undisturbed prairie than the clearly marked and symmetrically plotted cemetery to which we have become accustomed. (See related story on page 16). It is an option that reflects our Catholic understanding of the earth as “our common home,” our respect for the human body and our belief that our final destiny is heaven.

While the practice is relatively new to Catholics in the Twin Cities, it is already well established in other parts of the country. Many have seen the option as responding particularly well to the last three Holy Fathers’ reminders that we are to show reverence for God’s creation. Avoiding the use of concrete vaults, chemicals and non-biodegradable materials, natural burial minimizes the disruption to nature and allows for the type of noble simplicity that had long been part of the lives of our brothers and sisters in consecrated life, who often desired to be buried as simply as Christ was, wrapped only in the shroud, with complete trust in the God of creation.

While those choosing this option to forgo individual headstones, they are usually memorialized by name on a collective marker, which still allows for the same sort of storytelling that I loved as a youngster and now remember with such tenderness. For those desirous of a “natural burial” for themselves or their loved ones, I’m delighted that The Catholic Cemeteries will continue to pursue this option alongside the more common methods of burial. Given the great breadth that exists in our local Church, it shouldn’t be surprising that we would need the full range of options in our Catholic cemeteries as well.

Even though I won’t have a patriotically decorated bike at the cemetery this Memorial Day, I am grateful that I have been invited to celebrate this year at Resurrection Cemetery. I hope that you will join me for 10 a.m. Mass May 27.

I look forward to seeing you as we remember our brothers and sisters who died in the service of our country and as we draw strength even more generally from the faith of our ancestors.

Cementerios en nuestras vidas y al final de nuestras vidas

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Category: Only Jesus