A ministry of mercy: Catholic Cemeteries honors the departed, prepares faithful for own death

November 22, 2022

Father Julian Gerosa, CRS, celebrates Mass at Holy Cross Cemetery in Houston on All Souls Day. (Photo by Megan Doherty/For the Herald)

HOUSTON — Treating the bodies of the dead with charity and respect in hope and anticipation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is as old as the Catholic Church itself. The burial of the body is considered a Corporal Work of Mercy that honors the body of its deceased member as a child of God who is a temple of the Holy Spirit (CCC 2300).

A centuries-old tradition in Western Christianity has observed All Souls Day on Nov. 2 as a time to attend Mass, offer prayers and give sacrifices for the souls of loved ones and others around the world who have passed away and are in need of God’s mercy with the hope of joining Him in heaven someday.

According to Stephanie Nolan, director of the Office of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese, annual Masses in Commemoration of the Faithful Departed have traditionally been held at consecrated Catholic Churches and cemeteries on Nov. 2, including three cemeteries owned and operated by the Archdiocese.

Masses were held at Mt. Olivet Cemetery and Mausoleum, located in the greater Houston area. That is the largest active Catholic cemetery in the Archdiocese, with a variety of options to help families bury their loved ones. Calvary Cemetery and Mausoleum, located in Galveston, is the second-largest cemetery, with a variety of grave spaces available for purchase. Holy Cross Cemetery and Mausoleum, located in the heart of Houston, is the third active cemetery with grave space available for purchase.

“We celebrate this special Mass each year to pray for our deceased to be joined in eternal life with Jesus Christ,” said Nolan. “Some churches provide a list of people who died in a year’s timeframe, for example, 2021-2022, and each name may be prayed for out loud by the community. In this way, both the deceased and the living are engaged in prayer together, which allows God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit to hear our prayers and become moved to pour their blessings onto us.”

Since 1969, the Office of Catholic Cemeteries has managed these three cemeteries, in addition to Old Catholic Cemetery located in Galveston and St. Vincent Cemetery in Houston that are no longer operational or have grave space available for purchase. St. Vincent is the oldest of the five, founded in 1853, with its last burials in the 1920s, followed by Old Catholic Cemetery, which was founded in 1882.

Nolan said the Office of Catholic Cemeteries is devoted to the Corporal Works of Mercy that pertain to dealing with death in the context of faith. The ministry maintains and develops the cemeteries as sacred places dedicated to religious purposes, such as burying the dead, praying for the living and the dead, comforting those who mourn and witnessing to the shared belief in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sin, and the resurrection of the dead.

Nolan recognizes that while honoring the dead in this way is widely accepted and practiced by Catholics worldwide, the topic of death and preparing for one’s own funeral many times is not.

“The Office of Catholic Cemeteries recognizes that the topic of death and dying can be an uneasy discussion, so we encourage the faithful in the Archdiocese to visit the cemeteries, to stop into our office and talk with us about it. While we are not licensed professionals in counseling, we can listen and help plan their final disposition wishes so families can rest knowing that the hardest part (planning) has been taken care of for them.”

The Office of Catholic Cemeteries offers presentations to inform the general public about the following topics: Pre-planning funerals and burials; pre-planning grave spaces; educating those about the Catholic beliefs concerning death, including cremation, Mass without the body present, etc.

“Death is usually the number one fear, with public speaking following at a close second,” said Nolan. “Because many people are frightened of death and dying, many prefer to put off such important decisions. Cemeteries as a ministry offers compassion and choices, especially in considering final disposition and Mass.”

“Catholic Cemeteries recognizes and appreciates the support from the parishes under the umbrella of Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston,” said Nolan. “There are several parishes, too many to name, which send their faithful to our office to make their end-of-life arrangements. As a ministry of mercy, Catholic Cemeteries would like to offer our gratitude to these parishes.”

“Our cemeteries have many beautiful memorials, but sparse time and staff make it difficult to set aside specific tasks, such as dedicated cleaning,” said Nolan. “I’d love to invite volunteers who are 18 years and older to stop by the cemetery office and ‘adopt’ a memorial. Special care must be used to clean memorials as they are fragile and susceptible to damage if not properly cared for when using chemicals.”

To learn more about the Office of Catholic Cemeteries, call 281-337-1641 or visit www.ccadgh.org.