Sacred Ground

The Archdiocese of Baltimore has recently started a program called The Ministry of the 14th Station: Jesus is Laid in the Tomb, which is a response to the growing phenomenon of people having the remains of their loved ones cremated and then never getting around to burying them. The announcement of this ministry notes:

Since cremation is a more accepted practice in recent decades, more and more families are keeping a family member’s ashes in the home. As years and decades pass, the next generation inherits the urns of their grandparents and great grandparents. More and more urns are being misplaced and forgotten.

For a fee of $300 dollars, space is provided in one of the Catholic cemeteries in the city, “providing an opportunity to bury these ashes in sacred ground.”

This strikes me as a splendid idea, and sparks a few thoughts.

First, while cremation might seem very up to date and efficient, perhaps it reflects and fosters a view of the human body that runs counter to traditional Christian views. The fact that the “cremains” [sic] often get put away in a drawer to be lost in some future move does not suggest a view of the human body as dust bound for resurrected glory. Providing space in sacred ground might be one way to foster a proper Christian understanding of the resurrection of the body.

Second, regarding the notion of “sacred ground” itself, we might think that we somehow make ground sacred by, say, sprinkling it with holy water, making it a “safe” space for the bodies of Christians to be interred. But it seem to me that this gets things backwards. It is by the act of placing the baptized bodies of dead Christians in the ground that we make that ground sacred. Burial in the earth is a sacramental act by which the earth is consecrated to a holy purpose.

Third, burying the dead as a process by which “sacred ground” is created can help us to develop a more christian attitude toward the earth, our common home. Graveyards can and should serve as public sacred spaces, respites from encroaching concrete and glass, that can remind us all of the garden from which we came and for which we long.

For some more thoughts on burial, I commend this essay by the poet Lia Purpura.

4 comments

  1. My understanding of the OCF is that the remains must be treated like a body and therefore must be buried or placed in columbarium. Also that it should have some type of marker indicating the person’s name and dates of birth/death. To keep an urn in a home is simply not acceptable.
    While I applaud this ministry, I don’t think placing ashes in a common mass grave is the best way of honoring the dead UNLESS names and dates are clearly posted.

  2. Wonderful article. I hope there would be a place for the names of those whose ashes are buried there, as Joseph points out. Surely a marker comes with the $300!?

    BTW, I do believe that the modest cost is important. It makes this a proposition that many will feel relieved to take. I’ve known elderly people who believed they could not afford to bury ashes in the ground, and they were surprised that it was within their means.

    As a side note, let me also recommend this article by Thomas Long, which I thought was just excellent. (Fritz, there is some Maryland interest in this one too.)
    http://ismreview.yale.edu/article/the-christian-funeral-and-the-blessedness-of-mourning/

    1. Yes, records should be kept – and remembered. At the time an Episcopalian church on Beacon Hill in Boston was de-accessioned, I asked a friend who had a friend who was in the diocese to make sure that cremated remains of a number of relatively indigent people who had died from AIDS-related complications and other causes at the depth of the plague years that were interred in the tiny rectory garden be properly handled before the construction crews had at it.

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