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Since 2003, I have had the privilege of serving as executive director of The Catholic Cemetery Association of the Archdiocese of Boston.
The Catholic Cemetery Association has close to 150 years experience serving the needs of our beloved Catholics who have been laid to rest within one of our 23 cemeteries. To date, we are responsible for the care of more than 1 million of our faithful who have been buried in archdiocesan cemeteries. We hold these consecrated grounds close to our hearts.
Our commitment to provide a final resting place for the souls buried in one of our cemeteries is a service we engage in with absolute respect and dignity both for the deceased as well as the families affected by the passing of a loved from one within our Catholic Community.
In an attempt to better understand burial policies and guidelines for the Catholic Cemetery Association, I intend to to contribute occasional articles to The Pilot as an extension of the service we offer to our faith community.
In this first column, I would like to explain one type of burial and specifically “re-deepening” or “re-using” of graves.
When a family suffers the loss of a loved one, in most instances a funeral director is the first person they will contact. Most families will choose a funeral director they know, the result of an established and trusting relationship developed over the years. A funeral director offers comfort and reassurance at this difficult time. In choosing a burial site for a deceased, most families are aware that they have, or may have, immediate or extended family members buried in one of our cemeteries. In some instances, funeral directors will inquire on behalf of a family whether there is space available within a family lot for an additional burial to take place.
If a family lot has an “older” burial where no outside container was used (a grave box or vault), more than likely only a casket from that burial exists. In this case, where a significant amount of time has passed, the family will request, through the funeral director, that the grave be “re-used” for an immediate burial. It then becomes the cemetery’s responsibility to locate that particular grave and attempt to accommodate the needs of the family.
Time is often short. Most funerals will take place within 48 hours of the funeral director placing a call to the cemetery. Add to that a request by a family to re-open a grave and time becomes a critical factor, particularly in difficult seasonal conditions such as winter when the ground is possibly frozen. Still, many families choose to “re-use” a grave for different reasons. If it is the case that finances are a concern for the family, the Catholic Cemetery Association is committed to working with the family to be helpful and accommodating. Very often, purchasing a new grave is more cost effective in terms of burial space, future arrangements, monument inscriptions and rights of burials.
However, if re-use of a plot is still requested, the superintendent within the cemetery provides a work order for the operating crew directing them to open the specific grave based on the family’s request relayed through the funeral director. The operating crew will then map and locate the family lot and specifically the grave within the lot that the family is requesting for “re-use.”
For the most part, prior to 1940, remains of our loved ones were not buried within a permanent container, as is the norm nowadays. If that is the case, due to natural decomposition, we generally discover that remains no longer exist within that grave. In cases where remains still exist in the grave, the Catholic Cemetery Association proceeds carefully.
Procedurally, this is what can occur with the re-use of a grave:
1. First and foremost, any disturbed remains we discover during the process of preparing to re-use a grave are handled with the greatest respect. Those remains, if any, are delicately removed from the grave in a solemn and dignified way. The grave would then be re- deepened and those existing remains are placed carefully back into the grave to accommodate the immediate needs of the next burial.
2. In some instances if remains are exposed within a grave while preparing for a re- use and have not been disturbed, re-use of this grave will take place if the height of the grave can accommodate a permanent container and not disturb the existing remains. The superintendents within our cemeteries have the discretion to make a well thought out decision that this re-use can be accommodated at that time.
3. If cemetery operations open a grave and immediately come upon a permanent container (a vault or liner of some kind) within the grave, the re-use will not take place.
4. Some Catholic cemeteries within our association are designed to allow burials both side by side (single depth) and one burial on top of the other (double depth).
It is possible, however, to allow both re-use and re-deepening of a particular grave that can accommodate a double depth burial. A family may request re-use of a grave and we find there is already an existing container on top of remains that were buried pre-1940, only within a casket.
This process is more complicated as we are dealing with two sets of remains; those in a container and possibly some remains (pre-1940) that may be present below that. In this case, the grave is opened and the first container with the casket is removed from the grave as delicately as possible. The superintendent and operations crew then attempt to locate any remains of the original burial in that grave. If some remains are located, they will be removed with respect and dignity. They would then re-deepen the grave, place the (pre-1940) remains back into the now deeper grave, place the permanent container back on top of the original burial, and this will now allow enough depth for the immediate need of the next burial to take place.
The composition of the soil and land which make up our cemeteries, the materials we use to bury our dead, nature and time all contribute to the condition of any individual remains at any given moment. In the circumstance when a grave is re-opened for re-use, our employees make all necessary arrangements to conduct this delicate work with respect and care for the deceased and the family. We bury our dead with great pastoral care expecting never to have to reopen their gravesite as they rest in the eternal presence of God. However, we fully understand the desires of some families to have their loved ones buried near or with one another. Our prayer and hope is that in meeting such requests, we assist families who have lost a loved one in their time of mourning and in reaffirming their faith that their beloved deceased is truly at peace.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding any graves within our association or if we can offer some assistance to any Catholic families regarding any burials past present or future, always feel free to contact the Catholic Cemetery Association toll free at (888) 919-7926, local at (781) 322-6300 or via e-mail www.ccemetery.org.
Robert Visconti is Executive Director of The Catholic Cemetery Association of the Archdiocese of Boston.