The Catholic Cemetery Tradition


For the Judeo-Christian tradition, setting aside a special religious place for burial is found in Genesis (23: 1-20), the acquisition of a vacant parcel of land with a cave.  Moses used the cave for the burial of his wife Sarah.  For the Jewish community, burial of the dead was a mitzvot, a gift offered without the expectation of repayment.

Prior to the Protestant Reformation there were two types of religious burial grounds in Europe, the small churchyard surrounding a Catholic church and the even smaller Jewish cemetery.

Among the Corporal Works of Mercy as taught by Jesus Christ is the Burial of the Dead.  As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the churchyard outside and integral to the local Catholic church became the norm; it was during this time that the burial superstition of un-baptized infants being placed under the church’s eaves so that they would be cleansed by the rainwater from heaven finds its roots. 

In the 1500s, when the Protestant Reformation swept Europe and the British Isles, churches were seized along with their cemeteries; cemetery identity as Catholic became confused.  As a consequence, many Protestant congregations became obligated to operate the cemeteries that were seized.  Simultaneously, as urbanization evolved, larger secular or non-sectarian cemeteries were established to meet the needs of those Protestant churches without their own churchyards; these facilities also accepted those without a denomination preference or registration.

North America

Colonial America is repleat with both secular and religious issues.  Religious pluralism became the norm with the Puritans in Massachusetts, the Catholics in Maryland, and various other Protestant iterations between those two colonies.  In 1789 Pope Pius VI established the Diocese of Baltimore with John Carroll ordained as its first bishop.  In 1808 Baltimore became an archdiocese and New York, Philadelphia, and Boston were established as suffragan dioceses.  Catholic parishes were established; in response to pluralism Catholic schools and cemeteries were required to preserve Catholic identity and practice.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore provides the early history of the Catholic cemetery tradition in the United States.  In 1770 St. Peter Kirkyard was established; in 1789 St. John was established; in 1801 St. Patrick was established.  Each of these cemeteries was attached to a particular parish church/community.

As is in current evidence, the various Protestant denominations as well as Jewish congregations brought or established the practice of integrating cemeteries into denominational practice.  Many Christian denominations placed cemeteries proximate to their churches, often what we commonly still know as the churchyard surrounding the worship gathering structure.  The Jewish community, however, typically established cemeteries away from their worship space.

Cemetery As Disciplinary Tool

Burial in a Catholic cemetery was carefully controlled and required that the deceased was:

  • Properly baptized as a Catholic,
  • Registered in and supporting a Catholic parish,
  • If married, before a Catholic priest and two witnesses,
  • Satisfied Easter duty requirements, i.e. communion during the Easter time, with the appropriate record on file,
  • No public profile as a notorious sinner, and
  • Did not commit suicide. 

As a small cemetery began to serve other parishes, it became the obligation of the neighboring pastor to issue Priest lines, attesting to burial eligibility.  This document became even more important as dioceses established larger community cemeteries, often located at some distance from the parishes.  Interestingly, most Protestant denominations did not adopt this discipline.

After the Second Vatican Council

These disciplines held sway until the end of the Second Vatican Council [1962 – 1966] and the publication of a new Code of Canon Law in 1983.  Significant departures from these past disciplines included:

  • Mandated burial of Catholics in Catholic cemeteries was relaxed.
  • Catholic parishes no longer needed to provide their own cemeteries.
  • Catholic baptism became the only requirement for admission to the cemetery.
  • Family members of the Catholic were permitted burial adjacent to their baptized family members, regardless of religious identity/profession.
  • Cremation was permitted for Catholics so long as the choice was not understood as a denial of eternal life beyond the grave.

All of these stipulations/practices continued to take place under the umbrella of the Corporal Work of Mercy, the Burial of the Dead. 

Competition Begins

And while this discipline relaxation was happening, unbeknownst to the United States Catholic bishops, the owners of non-sectarian/for-profit cemeteries began target marketing to Catholics who were understood as released from mandated burial in Catholic cemeteries.  Some for-profit cemeteries even went so far as to independently establish Catholic sections in their facilities, often identifying them with the Virgin Mary or other Catholic saints.

This marketing effort was enhanced/buoyed with the introduction of the community mausoleum, a facility that enabled families to acquire above-ground interment spaces without having to pay for the construction of a separate family building.  With pricing determined by location (interior/exterior, chapel, corridor) and tier (level of crypt above the ground floor), it became possible for a family to acquire two mausoleum spaces for a cost similar to that of two spaces in the ground with an identifying monument.

The relaxation of the Catholic prohibition of cremation further intensified the marketing of the non-sectarian/for-profit secular cemeteries and memorial parks.  As interment costs continued to escalate, and younger Catholics in major urban areas had no real understanding of or attachment to the Catholic cemetery tradition, the practices of abandoning cremated remains at the funeral home or crematory, retaining cremated remains at home, using cremated remains to craft jewelry, and scattering cremated remains at a deceased favorite location.

Ongoing strategies continue to be developed to address these practices.