There are many ways - some more conventional than others - that cremated remains, kept in urns or in other containers, find their way to the Catholic cemetery overseen by Richard Peterson in Seattle, Washington.
Sometimes, an urn is left on the steps of a parish by an anonymous person. Other times, remains are unwittingly passed from one family to another during estate sales.
“We've had situations where people have purchased contents of storage units that have gone up for auction...and they received cremated remains,” he said.
“We don't even know if they were Catholic, but we were burying them at no charge in the Catholic cemeteries because those people were human beings and their lives were worth something and they need to be memorialized, at least buried properly,” Peterson said.
More typically, a family will keep the urn of a loved one in their homes, due to a difficulty in saying goodbye, or because of the high costs of a burial, or because they were not aware that the Catholic Church requires their burial or interment. But keeping remains in the home is always a temporary thing, Peterson noted.
“At some point in time, somebody's going to have to deal with those cremated remains that are in an urn on the mantle. Is that when the house gets sold? Is that when grandma dies?” he said.
Furthermore, cremated remains are often treated in a way that does not show proper reverence to the body or respect for the Catholic belief in the resurrection, he said.
“Scattering or keeping them at home or subdividing cremated remains, or turning them into jewelry, or any of these things really don't remind us that...our bodies are sacred and they should point us to deeper participation in the dying and rising of Jesus himself. That's really our focus, is our Lord.”
This is why many Catholic cemeteries in dioceses throughout the United States began offering free interment of cremated remains, said Peterson, who is the president of Associated Catholic Cemeteries in the Archdiocese of Seattle.
“It's something you find in any diocese or I say I would say almost every diocese in the country in one form or another,” he said.
“It's always been our practice here in the Archdiocese of Seattle, and I would say every other Catholic cemetery that I'm aware of, to not refuse members of our community because of their inability to pay. This is what we do. It's a work of mercy.”
For centuries, the Catholic Church forbade the practice of cremation of human remains altogether. In 1963, the Church issued new guidance allowing Catholics to have their remains cremated, as long as it was not done in order to deny Church teaching on the resurrection of the body, and as long as the remains were also given proper funeral rites and burial or interment. However, the Church still considers burying the bodies of the dead to be the preferred practice.
Peterson said that while most Catholic cemeteries have always helped the poor bury their dead, some started more official programs and advertisements of their free interment services starting in 2016, when the Vatican issued the document “To Rise with Christ.” The document clarified cremation guidelines and reminded Catholics that ashes may not be scattered or otherwise kept from burial or interment, despite widespread “new ideas contrary to the Church’s faith.”
“By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity. She cannot, therefore, condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body,” the Vatican stated in the document.
“Furthermore, burial in a cemetery or another sacred place adequately corresponds to the piety and respect owed to the bodies of the faithful departed who through Baptism have become temples of the Holy Spirit and in which ‘as instruments and vessels the Spirit has carried out so many good works,’” the document added.
The offer of free interment also ensures a proper resting place for the remains even if a family is unable to afford burial fees, said Gary Schaaf, executive director of Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services in Northern Colorado.
A typical Catholic funeral and burial can cost a family around $5,000 or more, Schaaf said. Even for more minimal services, such as a simple cremation and interment, families can expect around $2,000 worth of expenses.
Some families in need will qualify for state assistance with funeral costs, Schaaf said, but ultimately the burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy, and the Catholic Church does not want anyone left without an option for a proper burial.
“That's part of our Catholic mission and ministry,” he said.
These free interments take place on a monthly basis at Mount Olivet Cemetery, the largest Catholic cemetery in Denver, which is also home to the nation’s oldest Catholic mortuary. Schaaf said that Catholics from nearby parishes will often come to pray at these services, and the families of the deceased are invited to attend as well. So far, he said, the cemetery has taken in about 700 otherwise unburied or unclaimed cremated remains.
He added that prior to the 2016 Vatican document, free interments had been taking place at Mount Olivet on a case-by-case basis. For example, he said, they have been contacted by mortuaries that have gone out of business and had unclaimed cremated remains in their care, which were then taken in my Mount Olivet.
“We've tried to get the word out, even more so in the last couple of years, to parishes that, again, if somebody has cremated remains at home, if finances are an issue, we will lay them to rest for free,” he said.
The mission of Schaaf’s ministry is to “fill the void of loss with faith,” he said, and proper burials of remains can provide a healthy way for families to cope with death.
“We see that you can't avoid these things, that eventually they have to be dealt with,” he said of cremated remains that are unburied for years.
“And by dealing with them through the optic of faith, it's very healthy, and it's also very spiritually sound as well,” he added.
“There's a story from our sister cemeteries in California where there was a man who had been homeless for a couple of years, and he was carrying his wife's cremated remains around in a shopping cart,” Schaaf said.
“And he just didn't know what to do. Imagine the anxiety of not knowing what to do with that and just the enormous pressure. One, you're lonely, you're homeless. Maybe your priority in life was taking care of your spouse, and now they pass away. It's just tragic on a multitude of levels,” he said.
“And so I know that that gentleman, our ability to lay his loved one in sacred space and then in essence help him fill the void of loss with faith...was profound.”
The interment does not take away the wound of loss, Schaaf added, “but it does allow that wound to heal. And wounds, in a sense, they heal sometimes with scar tissue, and scar tissue often is stronger than regular tissue.”
Besides free interment for cremated remains, Schaaf said Mt. Olivet Cemetery also provides burials for about 99% of the homeless and indigent population of the Denver area, as well as free burials for any baby that died in the womb.
Schaaf said there are usually between 25 and 50 babies they bury for free every month. There is a deacon who makes little caskets for the babies, and each one is given a memorial service. The babies are also buried with blankets that are homemade - often they are hand-crocheted, or made out of old wedding dresses.
“It's profound. It is the Catholic Church walking the walk,” Schaaf said.
Throughout the month of November, the Church remembers and prays for the dead. This year in particular, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Vatican has extended the possibility to obtain plenary indulgences for souls in Purgatory throughout the month.
Peterson encouraged Catholics to remember to pray for the dead this month, and he encouraged anyone with unburied remains to seek their proper burial. Often, he said, the burial itself can be a moment of a renewal in faith for the family.
“Here in the Archdiocese of Seattle, I'm just talking about the general population, we're in a very unchurched, humanistic part of our country,” he said, “and I think [burials] are ways that people can find an opportunity to grow a bit in their faith, grow a bit in their relationship with God and be comforted that their loved one is being taken care of now and forever and remembered in prayer.”