WASHINGTON (CNS) — It is not as if anyone has organized a parade or a public relations campaign to say so, but Catholic cemeteries around the country have, do and will bury the indigent and those whose bodies have gone unclaimed.
“It’s a way to help those in need. A program to help the poor,” said Stephen Bittner of the Cincinnati Catholic Cemetery Society and president of the Catholic Cemetery Conference, the Illinois-based nationwide association for diocesan Catholic cemetery organizations.
The national association, on Nov. 1, will sponsor “Cemetery Sunday,” in advance of All Souls’ Day, which is Nov. 2. The day’s activities will include discussions with interested Catholics about the burial of indigents as well as other services Catholic cemeteries provide.
Burial of the poor “is a very common experience across the United States, and many dioceses have many services, and provide the services in a different way,” said Roman Szabelski, who oversees matters for the 45 Catholic cemeteries in the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Szabelski was at the Catholic Cemetery Conference’s national convocation in Nevada in September, where these and other initiatives were discussed.
Parishes in some dioceses — he mentioned Cincinnati as one of them — take up collections to defray the costs of indigent burials, particularly if the parish has its own cemetery. Many Catholic cemeteries, according Szabelski, often include a line item in their budgets for indigent burials.
Cemeteries also have been known to conduct burials of unborn children at no cost as part of their ministry, said Rita Coffman, associate executive director of the Catholic Cemetery Conference.
“Sometimes they (Catholic cemeteries) have agreements with the civil authorities, which is what we have,” Szabelski told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview.
“About three years ago, Chicago, like usual, had a story in the news that the county morgue was backed up with bodies. It was horrific, the sheriff made a big stink about it,” he said.
“We stepped up. ‘You say you have 300 bodies. We have the capacity do the burials.’ ‘We can’t bury them in a Catholic cemetery,’ but that (argument) didn’t make much sense,” Szabelski added. “We provided the services for three years.”
The Chicago Catholic cemeteries have stepped in on other occasions as well.
The coroner’s office in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago, “moved away from another contractor where they were stacking up the bodies, and family members couldn’t find their loved ones,” Szabelski said. “They pressed us (to conduct the burials). They paid us one-third of the going price.”
He cited the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal of 2009-10 as another instance where the Catholic Church stepped in to help.
“Burr Oak Cemetery (outside Chicago) was accused of disinterring, scattering the remains of people, doing double burials (in the same plot). It brought headlines, international headlines, at that time,” he told CNS. “The story ends with the state of Illinois and the Cook County sheriff asking me to come in and calm the storm and bring some record-keeping to see what was disturbed and what was not. There was new legislation not only in the state but across the states, and federal legislation of cemeteries, to make sure we were doing things properly.”
“We never say ‘free'” to avoid stigmatizing the next of kin of an indigent decedent, Bittner said. “But it is a service we provide.”
The practice is not reserved solely for Catholics, he added. “When that person’s body arrives, there are prayers said for the burial, even if the priest or minister is unavailable. We go into all faiths. We service all Christians who come to us in need. So if there isn’t a priest or a minister to arrive that day, we make sure we have prayers of dignity.”
“In many cities, if you die indigent and have no family, you become a ward of the city. Those types of people who die that way are going to be cremated and going to be put into a common space that the county pays to provide,” Bittner said. “In some cases, you have limited information on who those people are,” despite being “in a country of such wealth.”
Even in a more mobile and ultra-connected society, things can happen.
“You have so many who die homeless, without family,” Bittner said, “if we don’t go there to claim the body.” There have even been circumstances, he added, where someone will call to say, “‘I haven’t heard from my brother for months,’ only to find out that that person died alone in that apartment, there was no one around and the city took ownership of the deceased, and there was no one to call. It’s rare to see but you can see how that can happen in today’s world,” even in families that can afford a burial.
Another consequence of a mobile society is that family burial plots purchased well in advance for children don’t get used because those children, once grown, have moved far from home and established a family, career and life elsewhere.
“We can put them in our inventory to be used” by others if the family wishes to donate them, Bittner said. “But you really want the special effect, donate it to the parish where you’re going to be buried from. Tell Father Bob or Father Bill, and what Father Bob or Father Bill are going to do — if they know someone who is indigent and there is a death in the family — they’re going to have that ready.”