The Vanishing Body and the Disappearing Cemetery

November is the month the Church especially dedicates to praying for the dead. To encourage this holy practice, the Church offers a daily plenary indulgence for the souls in Purgatory, under the usual conditions (right intention, confession, Communion, prayer for the intentions of the pope) to those who visit a cemetery in the period November 1-8. She offers a partial indulgence at other times.

Why visit a cemetery, especially in our day? Although ours has been labelled a “culture of death,” the truth is that death has acquired a certain invisibility, what I call the “vanishing body.” Deaths frequently occur in hospitals or other institutions, rarely at home. The young are shielded from funerals, and the morgue has made funerals more a function of the convenience of the living than a commemoration of the dead. What has happened to the wake, which has progressively shrunk and now sometimes is just the evening if not the hour before a funeral? In the past two years or so, cremation has overtaken burial in the United States, further hiding death and the dead. Cemeteries are disappearing alongside vanishing bodies. So, why go visit a cemetery (at least while they’re still around)? Three reasons:

The graveyard is a sign of history and continuity: time neither begins nor ends with me. No one is a “rugged individualist,” bereft of relational ties. People are inserted into history and a community.

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In an individualistic and highly mobile society, these truths can be obscured. American Catholic practice has further clouded that picture through the takeover by dioceses of cemeteries, which were once parish affairs. There is an irreplaceable value to the parish cemetery: neighbors in life, neighbors in death. Today’s diocesan mega-cemetery, like today’s modern apartment house or McMansion, may offer nicer accommodations but usually at the cost of anonymity: Luke’s lawyer would today ask, out of sincerity rather than hypocrisy, “and who is my neighbor” (10:29)? When I visit my maternal grandmother’s tomb, in a parish cemetery, I can also find people buried nearby whom I knew. When I visit my parents’ grave, I have no idea besides whom they lie. Chronology, not affinity, determined things: when my uncle died first in 1964, they just opened that section of the cemetery. These days, not only do we bowl alone; we’re buried alone, too.

Sacraments and Sacramentals
Catholic theology speaks of the “sacraments and sacramental.” The latter include actions (e.g., the Sign of the Cross or blessing one’s self with holy water), things (e.g., holy water or Scapulars), and places (e.g., cemeteries). As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us (No. 1677): “Sacramentals are sacred signs instituted by the Church. They prepare men to receive the fruit of the sacraments and sanctify different circumstances of life.”

We used to refer to cemeteries as “consecrated” or “hallowed” ground. (The latter is particularly apt to recall during Halloween week, when there are sometimes incidents that profane that “hallowed” ground.) The term reminded people not just that the human body, even when dead, remains sacred, but it is also meaningful what is done with it.

The sacramental, hallowed nature of a cemetery recalls that the sacred and secular cannot be neatly divided but, rather, that they intersect: the sacred will spill out of the sacristy, efforts to constrain it notwithstanding. That calls to mind the fact that the public space ought not to be sanitized of the sacred: no “naked public squares.” The visible Catholic cemetery, with its tombs, its symbols, and its dead, is a reminder to everyone that there is another understanding of the meaning and end of human life than the agnostic shrug with questioning eyes that the modern cultural consensus offers.

Recent years have seen the Church stepping outside its walls, e.g., the revival of Corpus Christi and Good Friday processions on public streets. Let me also suggest the value of renewing the November cemetery procession. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, I remember going to our parish cemetery on the last Sunday of October (they thought November was too cold). The priests of the parish would process to the four corners of the cemetery, incense rising, leading people in procession or at the graves along the way in prayer. It showed the bond of the living and the dead and reinforced the sacrality of that place.

Let me add: I know that there is a practice in some places to celebrate Mass in a cemetery chapel in November and/or Memorial Day. Recognizing that the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen gentium, no. 11). I applaud that practice, but recommend also that the cemetery procession be included: the graveyard should physically be part of that commemoration. Distinctive Catholic practices of piety are worth preserving, because “a correct and wise application of the many riches of popular piety” which inspire and build up spirituality (see “Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy,” no. 12 and 260).

I also wrote of this activity as affirming the “bond of the living and the dead.” The cemetery is an extension of the Church, not just as a sacramental but as the final resting place of those who are part of the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant. The “communion of saints” is part of ecclesiology. Visiting cemeteries is, therefore, visiting another “part” of the Church.

The Body
The cemetery is the resting place, ahead of the Resurrection of the Dead, of the body. Honoring the body, even the dead body, is indicative of honoring the person. That is why, in Antigone, Creon is declared irreligious for denying Polynices’ burial. That is why modern day Creons—Planned Parenthood and certain federal judges—are so intent on overturning state laws, like those adopted in Indiana and Texas, that require unborn victims of abortion be buried or cremated in a humane way, not discarded as mere medical waste or, worse, trash (see graphically here).

Catholics have honored the body as an expression of the person: that is why, for example, we have a practice of honoring relics. Every cemetery is a reliquary. That is important to remember today, as a mentality that basically envisions the person as a computer stuck in a biological mass, gains ground in a technological world. If the body is “sub-personal,” just an attachment to the “person” (i.e., the mind), why have reverence for what are essentially “vegetable peelings?” Disposal of organic remains becomes a purely utilitarian and pragmatic consideration: how can this be done in a cost-effective manner that leaves the smallest carbon footprint?

It’s no accident that cremation is outstripping burial in popularity, even among Catholics. Indeed, the latest development in mortuary services appears to be “flameless cremation,” a kind of chemical dissolution of the body’s soft tissues (i.e., everything but bone) into a fluid whose advocates even hawk to the organic-minded as an eco-friendly fertilizer. The body’s bones are pulverized into dust (cf. Psalms 34:20). Cremation—“flameless” or fiery—is pushed as cheaper, environmentally minded, and preserving valuable land (ideally for the next mall parking lot).

I have previously railed (see here, here, and here) against cremation as abetting modern dualism’s tendency to depersonalize and devalue the body as well as being inconsistent with the Catholic tradition: if my Lord laid in the tomb, I want to follow him through the Cross and the tomb to Resurrection. I will not rehearse those arguments here. I am also acutely aware of the practical factors—primarily cost—that drive cremation, even among Catholics. I reiterate my argument that Catholic parishes would do well to take time in November to discuss funeral planning at a minimum and, at a maximum, talk about how to reduce those costs. I frankly do not understand why digging a hole can cost up to $1,200. Social justice starts at home.

Thinking even more outside the box, let me ask about the renewal of the parish Catholic cemetery. In the Diocese of Arlington, where I currently work, we are blessed with bishops who have decided to “renew” the local church by building parishes rather than eliminating them. This week’s diocesan paper reported how a parish in the central part of the Diocese has now launched its own parish cemetery. Why not renew that discussion?

So, why go visit a Catholic cemetery in these days? Besides the sacramental, ecclesiological significance, and the witness the graveyard (and our presence) gives to the dignity of the body, remember, there’s still one valuable reason: you can do something of eternal worth for the faithful departed by gaining an indulgence for them. Consider it a networking opportunity: it’s good having friends in high places.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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