Catholic Cemeteries gates are open, but services look different during pandemic

| Susan Klemond | May 22, 2020 | 0 Comments

Sister Fran Donnelly, director of The Catholic Cemeteries’ Life Transition Ministries, hands a wooden urn to Barbara Bovy during the Rite of Committal at Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights May 8.

People visiting a Catholic Cemeteries site in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis will find that much has changed because of COVID-19, but much remains the same.

Memorial Day Masses May 25 are canceled because of the pandemic. At burials, only 10 people at a time are allowed at a grave site, and everyone must maintain a social distance of 6 feet apart to help prevent spread of the virus.

Still, many of the same services continue to be offered — just for smaller gatherings — at Calvary in St. Paul, Gethsemane in New Hope, Resurrection in Mendota Heights, St. Anthony in northeast Minneapolis and St. Mary in south Minneapolis, all part of the Mendota Heights-based Catholic Cemeteries.

People can visit graves or walk through each cemetery from dawn to dusk, on Memorial Day or any day, said Joan Gecik, Catholic Cemeteries’ executive director.

The Cemeteries’ website, catholic-cemeteries.org offers alternatives to formal events, including making gravestone rubbings and saying simple prayers.

“We’re looking at helping people to connect with the cemeteries, maybe going back to the way they used to, coming out visiting family and friends, maybe having a picnic,” said Gecik, a member of St. Richard in Richfield.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to ensure social distancing at the annual Memorial Day Masses, so they have been canceled this year, she said.

Catholic Cemeteries’ burial options have not changed with the pandemic, but they now include new safety measures, such as limiting the number of people at a grave site, she said. To avoid contact with the casket, such as touching it one last time to say goodbye, people are asked to be in their cars while it is lowered into the grave, Gecik said.

Cemetery and funeral staff treat all deaths as possible COVID-19 cases because they’re unsure of transmission, she said.

Catholic Cemeteries is offering additional pastoral care — often remotely through email, photos or phone — as it strives to help families through grief that can be compounded if they can’t be with their loved one at death because of COVID-19 isolation, said Gecik and Tracy Flanagan, Catholic Cemeteries family service counselor.

“We can’t even walk into a church, we can’t share in the Eucharist, and what that does to a family who’s experiencing someone dying … is tremendous,” said Sister Fran Donnelly, the director of The Catholic Cemeteries’ LifeTransition Ministries.

Safety precautions because of COVID-19 extend to funeral homes, as well, said Dan Delmore, owner and funeral director of Robbinsdale-based Gearty-Delmore Funeral Chapels.

The Minnesota Department of Health is requiring funeral homes to provide as much service online as possible, said Delmore, a Catholic Cemeteries board member and a parishioner of St. Bartholomew in Wayzata.

The cemeteries and Delmore are helping families find creative solutions, such as attending services in shifts or using video to accommodate more people, Gecik said.

Catholic Cemeteries also is seeing more inquiries about burial pre-planning from people who don’t want to burden their families with planning at this time, Flanagan said. Because social distancing is likely to continue, the Cemeteries are upgrading their technology to offer more services remotely — something families seem ready for, she said.

Delmore’s chapels are using precautions such as protective body suits in handling COVID-19 cases. Cremation isn’t required in coronavirus deaths, Delmore said. Experts currently believe embalming seems to eliminate the contagion, but as a precaution a coronavirus victim’s loved ones should avoid touching the body at a viewing, he said.

Natural burial, which doesn’t involve embalming, remains an option for COVID-19 deaths, Gecik said.

Many families of the recently-deceased are waiting to have a funeral, burial or both, until their entire family can gather, said Sister Donnelly, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary who attends St. Peter Claver in St. Paul.

“The traditional wake and funeral and then the burial isn’t happening,” she said. “They might be happening in bits and pieces.”

The Church doesn’t prohibit separating or postponing funeral and burial rites. A full-body burial can be delayed for a period, depending on funeral home storage. In the case of cremation, all rites can be postponed, she said.

However, grief counselors and other experts don’t recommend delaying or eliminating a funeral, Delmore said.

Funerals force the grieving back into the community to choose the funeral liturgy, songs and who will participate, he said, adding that the parish community and neighbors also support survivors.
As families wait, Delmore fears they’ll forego having funerals or burials altogether.

Some families may decide not to bury cremated remains, which The Catholic Cemeteries discourages, Sister Donnelly said.

“We are always trying to present the Catholic perspective that the Church’s teaching is strong about that,” she said. “We treat those cremated remains with the same respect as we would treat a full body.”

Cremation rates have increased dramatically since the 1970s, Delmore said. Close to 50% of the Catholics his chapels serve choose cremation, compared to 60% overall in Minnesota, he said.

Meeting demand for funerals and burials when the stay-at-home order ends could be challenging for priests, said Delmore, who is preparing his business for an increase.

Gecik said she hopes The Catholic Cemeteries has learned more about caring for the deceased and their loved ones during the pandemic.

She noted that cemeteries provide assistance at a point when others have done what they can for families and their loved ones.

“We, in a sense, are the last responders,” she said.

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