Church teachings on funeral, burial liturgies help people understand the Catholic faith
By Bill Brewer
The need for a new cemetery in the Diocese of Knoxville to serve parishes in the Smoky Mountain and Cumberland Mountain deaneries prompts discussion about the Church’s teaching on the order of Christian funerals and the rite of committal.
While cremation is growing in popularity, and Pope Francis recently released instructions on cremation as part of the Catholic burial rite, the Church continues to acknowledge traditional interment as the preferred practice for disposition of the body.
Last October, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith released Ad resurgendum cum Christo (To Rise with Christ) regarding burial rites involving ashes, or cremains, of the deceased.
“A lot of people are OK with being cremated, but there are a lot of people who would prefer to be buried in a Catholic cemetery. Since the early days of the Church and the catacombs in Rome, burial has been part of our tradition,” Bishop Richard F. Stika said.
Calvary Cemetery, which has been the only Catholic cemetery in the Knoxville area since 1869, is nearing capacity, with no room for expansion, so Bishop Stika is launching an effort to locate land for a new Catholic cemetery.
With so many cemeteries in the area not part of the Diocese of Knoxville, why does the diocese need a new one of its own?
Father Randy Stice, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Athens and director of worship and liturgy for the diocese, explained that it is not mandatory for Catholics to be buried in a Catholic cemetery. But it is preferred.
“There is a rite in the rite of committal to bless the site. It is a blessing for cemeteries,” Father Stice said. “It’s not just a place to deposit the body. It’s a sacred place; it’s a blessed place; it’s a holy place.”
And although non-Catholic cemeteries typically are not blessed or dedicated as sacred by Catholic clergy, some of them do have Catholic sections that may be blessed places.
Father Stice laments the fact that today’s culture has lost track of the importance of cemeteries and Christian burial.
“It’s a tangible sign of the communion of the saints, the living and the dead. We’ve kind of lost that understanding of these aspects of a cemetery,” he said, emphasizing that Jesus was laid in a tomb until He arose.
Father Stice, who devoted a column on this topic in The East Tennessee Catholic newspaper in December, noted that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit “that merits great dignity and is not lost at death.”
Given that, according to Father Stice in echoing Bishop Stika’s comment, Catholic cemeteries have always been important, going back to the martyrs.
“They are places of hope and reflection, and a reminder of our communion with those who have died before us,” he said. “They also are a sign to remember to pray for the deceased. It’s an encouragement to remember the dead and have an even greater devotion to the martyrs and the saints.”
Father Stice acknowledges the popular status cremation occupies in today’s culture, and among Catholics, and he readily points to the pope’s recent instruction on cremation, Ad resurgendum cum Christo. The Catholic Church in 1963 eliminated its prohibition against cremation.
“The Church’s clear preference is for the burial of the body. It accepts cremation as long as it is not done for reasons to deny our faith and the resurrection of the body. If there is going to be cremation, the ashes must be treated as a body. They can’t be scattered. They also can’t be taken home and placed on the mantel,” he said.
In line with the Catholic Church’s teaching on cremation, many parishes and Catholic cemeteries provide columbaria for the sacred disposition of ashes. In fact, the new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus will have a columbarium for cremains.
Father Stice also noted that it is the Church’s preference, although not a requirement, for a funeral Mass to take place first before the body is cremated.
He believes there is an important opportunity for priests to catechize to Catholics and non-Catholics through funeral and burial liturgies. In the funeral Masses he celebrates, Father Stice said he often explains to the congregation the teachings behind the liturgy, such as the significance of the funeral pall, holy water, and incense.
“It’s an important catechetical time for people to help them understand the liturgy. It is important in our culture to understand that planning a funeral is an important part of catechesis. It’s a unique opportunity to share with them what we are doing and what it’s about. It’s important to explain what we do,” he said.
“We must remember that eternal life doesn’t begin at death; it begins at birth. It changes at death, but it doesn’t end there,” he noted.
Read Father Stice’s full column at etcatholic.org/2016/12/understanding-the-sacraments-to-rise-with-christ