On Saturday, Oct. 21, a crowd of 130 gathered for a special funeral at Nativity Church in Franklinville. What was different? This funeral Mass committed 38 separate cremated individuals to the peace of God — and for free.
“Cremation is still regarded by some Catholics as something of a ‘secret,’” said Marianne Linka, the director of South Jersey Catholic Cemeteries. “People sometimes tell us when we ask what their funeral plans are, ‘Oh, I’m just going to be cremated,’ and we tell them that’s fine — but you still need a path. Remains must be buried.”
In 1963, the Vatican permitted cremation as an option, noting its growing practice (often for financial reasons) and emphasizing that “the cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come.”
In dioceses of the United States, cremation is permitted under a renewed indult granted to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in 1997 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees the practice, and prefers if the memorial rites (the Mass) are said over the intact body, with cremation and interment of ashes occurring afterward.
Even so, Linka noted there still remained confusion and a rising trend in the practice of ash-scattering or other funeral “products” that include mementoes with remains. “The Catholic concern for these things is that they will not be treated with the reverence due to a body consecrated by the sacraments. After a generation, often these items will be thrown away — and that’s not reverent.”
Scattering ashes or keeping the remains at home are, according to the USCCB, “not the reverent disposition that the church requires.”
In recent years, the Vatican felt the need to issue a statement re-emphasizing that cremated remains are not to be scattered or reserved in the home: the Vatican cited in 2016 that the practice of “scattering ashes” is forbidden so as to avoid any appearance of “pantheism, naturalism or nihilism” and that remains may not be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry, or other objects. Burial in a grave or columbarium prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect —especially after the immediate generation has passed away.
“We are trying to educate the faith community regarding the teachings of the church,” says Debra Moore, the cemetery marketing and events coordinator for the Diocese of Camden. “Many people are unfamiliar with or confused about the church’s stance and don’t know you shouldn’t do some of these things.”
Being forgotten is a legitimate concern. One realtor contacted the cemetery office when she found an urn with ashes in the garage of a property she was selling. One set of remains had remained in a person’s home since 1988. Another interment at the group funeral came from a death that occurred only this year.
“The interment really gives people the opportunity to do the right thing,” said Linka. “Some people are embarrassed; they cremated their loved ones and for one reason — be it financial or otherwise — or another held on to their remains and don’t know what to do after a certain point. But the group event allows them to bring them out and bury them with the dignity and reverence due to them.”
Last year, a similar group funeral was held on Oct. 29 at Resurrection Cemetery in Cape May, when 14 individuals were interred with the help of Saint Maximilian Kolbe Parish. This decision was made to move the event to a more centralized location in the diocese, and was advertised through outreach to 60-some parishes, which were asked to insert flyers into their weekly bulletins, as well as here in the Catholic Star Herald. Interested individuals needed to register in advance online, over the phone, or via a mail-in form by Oct. 13, so logistical arrangements for the group burial could be made in advance.
The Mass of Christian Burial and the Rite of Committal were led by the pastor of Saint Michael the Archangel Parish, Father Lawrence Polansky. Liturgical support was provided by Saint Joseph Parish in Somers Point. Individuals were interred in a single vault (donated by the Dodson Vault Company) at All Saints Cemetery’s section for in-ground cremation, with support provided by the Bell-Hennessey Funeral Home.
South Jersey Catholic Cemeteries plans on obtaining a headstone with contributions made from family members and others to memorialize those buried in this group grave. Contributions for this memorialization are still being accepted at the cemetery office at All Saints Cemetery..
“This is really the center of our ministry,” said Linka. “It’s a great work of mercy to ‘bury the dead,’ as we are commanded.”