“A cemetery exists because every life is worth loving and remembering — always.”
This sentence, the final line of a poem believed to have been written in the 1970s by Mary Lou Brannon, succinctly explains why cemeteries were founded, according to Father Peter Bayer. Cemeteries serve as both a perpetual record of yesterday as well as a sanctuary of peace and quiet today, the poem notes.
The existence of Catholic cemeteries in particular highlights Catholics’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection and in life after death, remarked Father Bayer, who served on the board of trustees of Rochester’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery for more than 40 years.
“Christ came to bring us redemption, salvation, but especially to bring us the promise of eternal life,” he said. “Catholic cemeteries represent Christ’s resurrection.”
Jesus was buried in a tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea, although his body was only there briefly before he rose from the dead, and Jesus promised his first followers that they, too, could have eternal life, Father Bayer said. According to the Gospel of John, when Lazarus died, Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” The early Christians believed Jesus’ promise, Father Bayer said.
“Even in the very early church, the catacombs were very important for the burial of those who had become Christian,” he said.
Cemeteries have evolved quite a bit since the days of burial in the catacombs, and for many years the Code of Canon Law has included a section pertaining to Catholic cemeteries. According to canon 1240, “Where possible, the Church is to have its own cemeteries or at least areas in civil cemeteries that are designated for the deceased members of the faithful and properly blessed.”
Canon law allows parishes and religious institutions to have their own cemeteries, and there are more than 60 parish and regional cemeteries within the Diocese of Rochester, Father Bayer said. Some parish cemeteries were established even before the Rochester Diocese was formed from a portion of the Diocese of Buffalo in 1868, and Holy Sepulchre Cemetery was established by Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid in 1871, he said.
Catholic cemeteries have been consecrated and are holy places, and canon law requires them to be treated as such, he added. According to canon 1243: “Particular law is to establish appropriate norms about the discipline to be observed in cemeteries, especially with regard to protecting and fostering their sacred character.”
Cemeteries should be reverent places that inspire prayer in those that visit them, Father Bayer explained.
“I think there’s a special reverence because of their belief in eternal life. I think there’s a real reverence for the graves themselves, for the people who are buried there. To keep them in remembrance, to keep them in prayer, I think is very important,” he said.
Many people regularly visit the graves of their loved ones, especially on such significant days as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Memorial Day. Quite often visitors will say a prayer for their departed loved ones during their visits, and Father Bayer once observed a group of approximately 15 people sitting in lawn chairs near a group of graves.
“They were sitting down praying the rosary around their family members. It was just really moving,” he recalled.
Such gatherings provide a visible witness that the faith community is not broken by death, Father Bayer said.
“The whole thing of a Catholic cemetery is, it’s not just a memorial to the dead. It’s a memorial to the dead as part of the Catholic Church and of its traditions and ceremonies and remembrances,” he said.