Careful About Columbaria

Parishioners without experience often try to push pastors into practices and policies that appear to be great but have hidden pitfalls. Parish cemeteries and parish columbaria fit this category of good ideas that go bad.

I know this from personal experience as administrator of a small parish cemetery that began in 1868. By the time I became responsible in 1991, we had some costs, no money, few reliable records, and big adventures every time we had to dig a new grave. And any initiative to expand the cemetery faced awesome regulations and neighbors who didn't want to lose their free and quiet backyard.

Therefore I recommend correspondence with the Catholic Cemetery Conference to anyone who is thinking of starting a parish cemetery or building a parish columbarium.

Since 1949, the Catholic Cemetery Conference has been helping cemetery managers and staff with many aspects of their ministry. They can be reached at 888-850-8131, or by e-mail at nccc@ntriplec. com, or 710 N. River Road, Des Plaines, IL 60016-1296.

In August 2006, they published a document on ''Spaces for Cremated Remains of the Body In and Around Catholic Churches.'' It is valuable reading, especially for priests contemplating or being urged to authorize burial places inside or near their churches. Even granted a measure of their organizational self-interest, some statements are sobering:

  • Civil law is not only complex but in constant state of change. It's difficult for Catholic cemeteries to keep up with legislation, and more so for parishes.
  • Although cremation is permitted, the church says that cremation does not have the same value as burial of the body (cf. Order of Christian Funerals, no. 413). Catholic teaching stresses the preference for burial or entombment. Placing columbaria near churches offers only those being cremated the opportunity for entombment near their church. Those preferring full body entombment do not have that opportunity, and thus, the unintended message, that you have to be cremated to have your remains near the church.
  • Families expect their loved ones' remains to be undisturbed. If churches are closed and columbaria are involved (as with parishes that have cemeteries now) there is much less flexibility for the diocese.
  • One group of people may start something with dedication and knowledge, but they phase out. Subsequent parish leadership may fall short. This can lead to serious legal troubles and moral failures affecting the families of the deceased.
  • Raising funds through the sale of columbaria may seem attractive, but initial profitability sinks over time as maintenance issues must be dealt with.

The experience I had taking care of a small cemetery convinced me that such mom-and-pop operations bring problems and take too much of a pastor's time and energy. There is too little money to hire a qualified superintendent, the grass is never cut well enough for some mourners, and you are sometimes a consoler but often a complaint box. And since some complaints are very valid, and make great TV, dioceses should be actively helping pastors to satisfy chronic systemic complaints before they become crises.

The bottom line of the CCC report: ''For reasons ranging from Church teaching, to legal concerns and future financial responsibility, it is not advisable to build a columbarium in or on church property, unless it is attached to a parish cemetery. Although a local parish may wish to minister to the dying and the grieving by providing burial options at the local church, or to generate revenues for the church, it is felt that there are stronger arguments against building a columbarium than there are for building one.''

New Growth

Kudos to TIME magazine for a fine article (Nov. 20, 2006; p. 53) about how more young women are entering convents and changing the sisterhood.

Photos of women in habits praying and doing dishes as well as playing volleyball presented a very favorable picture of a new generation of women who are interested in a lifetime commitment to Christ.

Some of us may not have noticed, but TIME reports: ''Over the last five years, Roman Catholic communities around the country have experienced a curious phenomenon: more women, most in their 20s and 30s, are trying on the veil. Convents in Nashville, Tennessee; Ann Arbor, Michigan, and New York City all admitted at least 15 entrants over the past year, and fielded hundreds of enquiries.... Catholic centers at universities report growing numbers of women entering discernment, the official period of considering a vocation. Career women seeking more meaning in their lives are also finding their way to convent doors.''

I found this article to be very positive and good to recommend. There were no negative comparisons with golden eras, nor sour histories of big defections, nor sarcasm about the habit. Religious life, like the priesthood, always has great attractions and challenges. Some generations and some individuals are better able to see that than others are. As this article points out, women of all ages -- JP2 women, Gen Xers, even ''Sister Moms'' (widowed or divorced women with grown children) -- are looking for fulfillment that the world cannot provide, and some are finding it here.

It is not too late to call attention to this article. Look it up on the Internet, quote from it in your bulletin, make photocopies for church and hand it to women you know. Maybe God is calling a reader of that article, through you, to explore something great that could be her life's work.

Divine Humor

People often complain to us that God is not fair -- as if He should be or has to be.

Perhaps you could share with them the story of Sonya Thomas. Her life reminds us that though God made us all and loves us all, He does not make us or love us the same way.

In a nation of dieters (including priests and deacons) who hesitate to eat a cookie lest a second on the lips become a lifetime on the hips, professional speed-eater Sonya Thomas wrote in the February 2007 issue of Readers' Digest:

When I was 35, I watched a speed-eating contest on TV and figured, I can do that. I started practicing in my kitchen and in June 2003 drove from Virginia to New Jersey for the first round of the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Inter- national Hot Dog Eating Contest. In 12 minutes I ate 18 dogs and won. I was so happy. Since then, I've won 40 contests, eating everything from boiled egg to lobster. I never gag or get sick, and haven't gained a pound. But I've earned $100,000-plus in prize money.

See that! She makes money eating while so many people have to nibble on lettuce or dry toast. But here is a skinny woman who gulps mounds of food in a few minutes. She never gains a pound -- and makes money doing it.

So God is not fair -- and He has some sense of humor.