Over the course of more than 40 years of involvement with Catholic cemeteries, I cannot begin to count the number of times I’ve been asked how I ended up in this type of work. My paternal grandfather died in November 1950; the following May began a ritual of spending summers with my widowed grandmother.
Following early Mass on Sunday mornings we were driven across town to St. John the Baptist parish cemetery in Central City, PA. There my grandmother, in her broken English, taught my sister and me two fundamentals, i.e. the Catholic tradition of prayer for the dead, and her caution in pointing to the monument, that we never do anything to shame the family name. In my early seminary years I cut grass in a parish cemetery during one summer. Those experiences, however, did not qualify me for this career.
From the mid-1960s until 1990, when I established Joseph B. Sankovich & Associates, the following experiences led me to this apostolate:
- formal Catholic education, including a degree in philosophy and an advanced degree in New Testament theology;
- 5 years active priestly parish ministry;
- hands-on rehabilitation of a parish cemetery over 10 years;
- involvement with Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in death and dying workshops;
- 6 years directing a parish religious education program;
- 3 years working for an early Catholic cemetery consultant in a variety of management and sales capacities; and
- 6 years re-creating the Seattle Archdiocesan Cemetery Program.
As my development progressed and my knowledge and understanding deepened, I began to see that the teachings and implications of the Second Vatican Council had not broken into the Catholic cemeteries. First, with the support and encouragement of John Cardinal Dearden, Archbishop of Detroit, and then with similar support from Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen and assistance from three Pacific Northwest theologians, I guided the writing of the first Mission Statement for Catholic Cemeteries; it was adopted and promulgated in the Archdiocese of Seattle, and shared with Catholic hierarchy across the United States.
The Second Vatican Council (1962 -66) diversified the roles and expectations of the North American Catholic hierarchy and a significant number of Ordinaries transferred oversight of Diocesan Cemetery Programs to their Administration/Finance directors. At this juncture the Corporal Work of Mercy of Burial of the Dead exploded into what became known as the 3 pillars of the Seattle Mission Statement, the ministries of:
- Paraclesis (comfort & support);
- Catechesis (education of Catholics); and
- Evangelization (expansive education about the implications of the Catholic belief in life after death).
With a recognition and understanding of this tectonic shift in the Catholic church and its theology concerning death and life after death, Joseph B. Sankovich & Associates was established to assist those in cemetery leadership, both at the diocesan and parish level. With significant Catholic cemetery inroads already made by the non-sectarian and funeral home/cemetery conglomerates, the challenges were real and the opportunities both plentiful and significant.
A formalized structure was identified and defined to enable and assure a thorough and comprehensive approach to evaluations as well as program development. That structure was identified as 8 Disciplines and included:
Grounds Operations & Maintenance
Cemetery Inventory & Development
Cemetery Office Structures & Services
Human Resources/Cemetery Personnel
Product/Service Sales: Pre-Need & Family Service
Cemetery Accounting & Finance
Over the course of 30 years this structure has proven both its validity and worth to numerous clients who have contracted for program evaluations as well as development and documentation of specific programs. To support comprehensive understanding of the various disciplines, handbooks for each of the 8 have been developed and remain available.