Catholic cemeteries existed in the Rochester area long before the Diocese of Rochester was officially formed in 1868, said Father Daniel Condon, diocesan chancellor and a member of the diocesan cemetery committee.
And the tradition of Catholic burial goes back much further, since the ancient catacombs in Rome could be considered the earliest Catholic cemeteries, he added.
The tradition has remained strong in this area, which boasts more than 60 Catholic cemeteries within diocesan borders. The largest of these — Rochester’s Holy Sepulchre Cemetery — handles about 1,800 funerals each year, said Jim Weisbeck, executive director.
Catholics continue to choose burial in Catholic cemeteries for a number of reasons, the most common of which is their strong belief in the resurrection, Father Condon said. According to the National Catholic Cemetery Conference, this belief is the main reason Catholic cemeteries came into existence.
“Catholic cemeteries exist, from a doctrinal point of view, because of our belief in the resurrection of the body in some new shape or form at the end of time. Conversely, if there were no promise of resurrection and eternal life, there would be no need of Catholic cemeteries,” the conference’s mission statement notes.
A Catholic cemetery is a place where Catholics can feel free to express this belief, and it is one of the sacred places described in canon law, Father Condon said. Canon 1205 of the 1983 Revised Code of Canon Law states that “sacred places are those which have been designated for the divine worship or for the burial of the faithful through a dedication or blessing which the liturgical books prescribe for this purpose.”
If a Catholic chooses not to be buried in a Catholic cemetery, the church’s committal rite does include a section for the blessing of a particular grave at the time of burial, Father Condon added. Even so, the church continues to strongly encourage its members to choose burial in a Catholic cemetery, he said.
A Catholic cemetery also can be seen as a visible sign that the faith community is not broken apart by death. It provides a place where Catholics alive and deceased remain united as a community of believers, Father Condon said.
“We’re not just in community with people that are alive in this world, but in the world to come as well,” he said.
The church is an integral part of each stage of life for Catholics, noted Mitchell Fanning, administrator of St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Auburn. Most were baptized in the church shortly after birth, celebrated their sacraments and were married in the church, and will continue their church involvement with funeral Masses and Catholic burials, he said.
“It makes sense to be with the present Catholic community, the past Catholic community and at some point, the future Catholic community,” Fanning said.
Staff members at Catholic cemeteries also view their work as a ministry. They carry out not only corporal acts of mercy by burying the dead, but also spiritual works of mercy by comforting the sorrowful, Father Condon said.
“We try to be here as much as we can for the families,” Fanning said. “It’s a place for the loved ones to come to help in the healing process. The cemetery is as much for the living as it is for the dead.”
A cemetery provides a place where family members and friends can come to pray and feel a connection with their deceased loved ones, Weisbeck said. At a Catholic cemetery prayer is not only accepted, it also is encouraged. At Holy Sepulchre, for example, a memorial Mass is offered on the third Saturday of each month.