October 31, 2014

Catholic cemeteries affirm dignity of human person in Metro Detroit

Metro Detroit — For Catholics, cemeteries are much more than a place for the bodies of deceased friends and family.

“(Cemeteries) are a sacred place that provides an appropriate environment respecting the life of the person, and expressing our belief that the person has been handed over to God and is now enjoying life in the Kingdom,” said Fr. Timothy Babcock, liaison to Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services (CFCS), a ministry of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

CFCS oversees the five Catholic cemeteries falling within the region of the archdiocese: Southfield’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Detroit’s Holy Cross Cemetery, Brownstown’s Our Lady of Hope Cemetery, Monroe’s St. Joseph Cemetery and Wyandotte’s Mount Carmel Cemetery. That doesn’t include the dozens of parish-operated cemeteries also within the archdiocese.

Dignity for the dead

The Catholic Church encourages Catholics to be buried in what is called a “consecrated space,” explained Fr. Babcock: “In other words, a space that has been dedicated to a proper handling of human remains.”

He said Catholic cemeteries are special, due to regular remembrance of those buried — two of the cemeteries have monthly Masses for those who are buried there — and the “religious atmosphere” prompted by statues and faith-related monuments.

“It’s an expression of our belief of our respect for life: the way we treat our dead,” said Fr. Babcock, who is also interim director of CFCS’s advisory board.

Fr. Babcock explained that the Catholic Church permits cremation, though the preferred form is still in-ground burial or entombment, in light of the Catholic belief in the resurrection of the body.

He referenced Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s 2013 pastoral letter on Catholic funeral rites, “In Union with Christ’s Dying and Rising,” in which the archbishop expressed particular concern for appropriate respect for cremated remains.

“Our concern is that the cremated remains — what we commonly call ashes — should be treated with the same respect that a body is,” said Fr. Babcock. “They are still human remains.”

Fr. Babcock also said that while most of those buried in the archdiocesan cemeteries are Catholic, “we do bury spouses and even other Christian people who, for one reason or another, want to be buried there.”

Care for the poor

Another crucial role played by the archdiocese’s Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services is to assist those who are in financial need and cannot ordinarily afford to bury a loved one. CFCS also offers free interment of cremated remains that might have been sitting uninterred for years: “Cremated remains are in some instances not claimed … We will remove that concern,” Fr. Babcock said.

“It’s more important for us to properly care for cremated remains than it is to make money,” he said, explaining that in the case of burying a body, “Either we will work with them at a very low-level, long-term payment rate to accommodate, or in some instances we will bury the person.”

He credits Catholic Management Services, a group based in California, for leading CFCS in its services since 2012.

“Archbishop Vigneron was aware of them from his time in California (as bishop of the Diocese of Oakland), and asked them if they would come to help us,” he said. “I think they have helped us a lot to have a clearer sense of what we are about and how we can serve people. It’s been a gift to us all to have them.”

Maureen Chappell, associate director of CFCS in the archdiocese, see its ministry as a way to reach out to Catholics and educate them.

She said CFCS offers “pre-planning” to help individuals determine what they or their loved ones would desire, prior to the time of need.

“It’s a difficult conversation, but if you wait to have it until the time of need … it is putting more pressure on the family at the time of grieving,” she said.

Chappell explained that options such as CFCS’s Mother Teresa Program help the poor and destitute of Metro Detroit to receive dignified funeral and cemetery services.

“It applies to anyone who can’t fall within the normal financing policy (such as) if the family can’t put a down payment,” said Chappell.

Fr. Babcock said CFCS places great emphasis on service to the underserved — for example, its participation in the interment of unclaimed bodies from the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office this past July. The deceased individuals were laid to rest at Brownstown’s Our Lady of Hope Cemetery.

Fr. Babcock said a monument marking the graves of the unclaimed individuals will be dedicated by Archbishop Vigneron on Nov. 2, All Souls’ Day.

“If people see the setting in which we put those (deceased persons) they will understand, I think, what we are trying to say about the proper respect we owe for any human being,” he said.

Fr. Babcock added he was “very pleased” with how the community came together to care for the unclaimed remains: “The Jewish Foundation was very involved; a number of the different Protestant groups were helpful; the Funeral Directors of Michigan spearheaded the whole thing.”

“The archdiocese’s contribution was only one part of a real community effort to see that people were treated respectfully,” he said.