Home Death & Resurrection 40 years of changing customs in burial of the dead

40 years of changing customs in burial of the dead

Executive director of Catholic Cemeteries considers the evolving American ways of mourning
It seems hard to believe that later this year I will have been an employee of Catholic Cemeteries for 40 years. It’s been an honor to serve the local community for so many years.
When starting my career in September 1977, nearly all the scheduled burials in our cemeteries took place after a viewing held at the funeral home on the evening before the funeral and a Mass of Christian Burial at the deceased’s parish church on the same morning as the burial. Most Masses were scheduled for early morning at 9 to mid-morning at 10:30. Almost every funeral arrived at the cemetery before noon. After the committal at the cemetery most families gathered for a post-funeral brunch or lunch. At most there may have been 10 burials of cremated bodies during an entire year.
Over the years these practices have evolved. Some changes are because of practical concerns and others are the result of changing values and perceptions.
The first change was that some families eliminated a viewing held at the funeral home the night before a funeral. This seems most prevalent when the children travel from outside the area to attend, when the deceased has been living in a nursing facility for an extended time, or when there are few close family and friends. In these instances, the viewing is held the morning of the funeral either at the funeral home or in the parish church.

Silk flowers and a photo of the deceased decorate the inside doors of a mausoleum at Cathedral Cemetery. (Virginia O'Shea)
Silk flowers and a photo of the deceased decorate the inside doors of a mausoleum at Cathedral Cemetery. (Virginia O’Shea)

While such a practice is efficient, it can deprive the larger community of neighbors, extended family, friends and professional associates the chance to visit the family to pay their respects. Many times those who the family may not know may share some detail about the deceased that no one else ever even knew. For example, “Did you know your dad helped my family by giving us money for rent when we needed help the most?” “Did you know that your mom helped me, an unwed mother, by babysitting for free?”  
Another change is the occasional decision by some children not to schedule a funeral Mass for their deceased parent. This is more prevalent when the deceased is the sole surviving parent. This is cause for concern especially when the deceased was devout and attended Mass every Sunday and often every day. Children who are no longer active in the practice of their faith decide that they are not comfortable at Mass and they opt for a prayer service at the funeral home or cemetery.
Pre-planning your funeral and making your preference for a Mass known to all your heirs may prevent such an occurrence. On the most extreme end of this trend is the occasional drop off of a casket or urn with no family present. In these instances, the staff always gathers together for a committal service. No one is laid to rest in our Catholic cemeteries without prayers.
The most profound changes in Catholic burial practices are a result of the growing acceptance of cremation. Last year there were 197 burials or inurnments of cremated bodies in our three diocesan cemeteries. This number does not reflect those who are cremated and are still in the possession of their loved ones or in storage at a funeral home.
In spite of the growing use of cremation, there are many misperceptions and ongoing confusion surrounding cremation and accepted practices. Keep in mind, the church’s reverence for the body reflects the belief that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The cremated body is to be treated with respect at all times.
Following are some clarifications of the church teaching and recommended practices surrounding cremation:
l The Church’s preference is for full body burial. Since 1963 cremation has been permitted.
When cremation is chosen the preference is that the body be present for the funeral Mass. Cremation occurs after the Mass has been celebrated.
In 1997, the bishops of the United States gave permission to allow the cremated body to be present during the funeral Mass. This requires approval of each local bishop and has been granted by the Diocese of Wilmington.

  •  The cremated body is to be treated with respect at all times. Scattering, commingling, making the cremated body into jewelry, and keeping the cremated body at home are not permissible.
  •  The cremated body should be interred or entombed in a cemetery and an appropriate memorial in memory of the deceased should be placed.

‘To Rise with Christ’
These guidelines are in place to ensure that the human body, in whatever form, is treated with respect and dignity. A recent church document, “To Rise with Christ,” reminds the faithful that the proper disposition of the cremated body in a sacred place (cemetery) ensures that the deceased is not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or their community. It further states, “Such a practice prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten or their remains from being shown a lack of respect.”
For example, such lack of respect can unintentionally occur when cremated bodies are found in unmarked boxes in the closet of a deceased relative’s home. Often these containers are inadvertently thrown away or become part of an estate sale.
The reality is that all of us, as Catholics, must continue to be counter-cultural and to affirm the core belief that death is not the end. We do not hold “End of Life Celebrations.” Instead, we celebrate the deceased’s birth to eternal life. This understanding of earthly death as birth to eternal life receives privileged expression in the liturgy of the church.
Our confidence in the resurrection of the dead and the dignity of each person are most especially expressed in our funeral rituals and burial practices.
Discuss with family
In order to ensure that your final arrangements are in accordance with your wishes, it is important that you spend some time openly and honestly discussing these matters with your family. While avoidance of the conversation is a possibility, avoidance of the reality is impossible.
As someone who has been serving grieving families, for four decades, I recommend that all those over 50 years of age spend some time in honest discussion and make sure that your final wishes are concise and permanently recorded. There are excellent online resources that are available.
One such online resource is “Have the Conversation of a Lifetime.” Be sure that your wishes are honored and that they reflect your core beliefs, your life of faith, and your hope in the resurrection of all the dead.
Christian is executive director of Catholic Cemeteries of the diocese.