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Outdoor marble-front niches are pictured in the Our Lady of Lourdes building at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. There were 107,769 cremations in California in 2009, representing 46.4% of total deaths, according to the Cremation Association of America.

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Dominican parish to create columbarium
December 7th, 2011
By Valerie Schmalz

St. Dominic Parish in San Francisco is selling 320 niches for cremated remains to its parishioners, a first for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and a sign of how things have changed from the past when the Catholic Church banned cremation except for extraordinary circumstances such as an outbreak of the plague.

“In the old days you had cemeteries surround the church, of one giant piece of God’s care,” said St. Dominic’s pastor, Dominican Father Xavier Lavagetto. He said repeated requests from parishioners led him to ask special permission from Archbishop George Niederauer to install a columbarium in the Friars Chapel behind the main altar.

The archbishop’s approval was specific to the circumstances at St. Dominic, which is owned by the Dominican Order. All niches are to be sold to established parishioners with the funds remaining from construction to be placed in an endowment fund for the columbarium. The niches will be sold for $4,200 to $15,200, with some reserved for indigent parishioners, according to a parish website. The niches are available only to registered parishioners.

St. Dominic’s proposed columbarium is an example of how prevalent cremation has become, particularly in California, the state with the highest number of cremations in the country with 107,769 in 2009. Forty-six percent of Californians chose cremation over whole body burial in 2009, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Nationally, cremations rose from 33 percent in 2004 to 38 percent in 2009, according to the association report.

Hard numbers on how many Catholics choose cremation are difficult to come by. About 30 percent of those interred in recent years at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma were cremated, said Monica Williams, director of cemeteries for the archdiocese. “However, we are aware there are a fair number of Catholics who choose not to bury cremated remains at Holy Cross Cemetery.”

Many more Catholics’ remains are being cremated and their remains kept on a shelf at home, divided between relatives, or scattered, she said. Many people do not realize the church teaches that cremated remains must be treated with the same respect as a body and buried, Williams said. Canon law specifies that remains be buried in a blessed Catholic cemetery after a Catholic funeral.

After years of requests by parishioners, the final impetus for the columbarium at St. Dominic came from a parishioner, said Father Lavagetto, “who had mother at home in an urn.”

Until 1963, the Catholic Church prohibited cremation except in extraordinary circumstances such as an epidemic, said archdiocesan canon lawyer Rob Graffio, a ruling that developed not because cremation was intrinsically wrong but because it became a symbol of defiance of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. The early martyrs’ ashes were scattered by their pagan persecutors, in defiance of the church’s teaching. As Christianity spread, burial became the norm. In the 19th century with the rise of Freemasonry which denied the existence of an afterlife or the soul, cremation arose again as a practice. Thus, in 1886, the Catholic Church specifically condemned cremation and people who directed their bodies be cremated were denied a Catholic funeral and burial. Cremation was banned except in extraordinary circumstances in the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

Originally, after the ban on cremation was lifted in 1963, cremated remains could not be present for the funeral Mass, but in 1997 the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments authorized each local bishop to set his own policy. In the Archdiocese of San Francisco, cremated remains may be present for the funeral Mass. The sacred congregation states that the remains must be interred after the funeral Mass.

Today, Holy Cross Cemetery offers a variety of options for interment of cremated remains, Williams said. They range from in-ground burial in an existing family plot or in a special plot for cremated remains or placement in an indoor or outside niche. Inside niches can have glass fronts, with room for photos and other memorabilia to be placed in them. Outside niches are marble fronted with the name engraved. People’s ashes can be buried in a family columbarium that holds up to 12 sets of ashes or in smaller and individual columbaria which are placed around the cemetery grounds, Williams said.

Aside from the church’s teaching, there are good reasons emotionally and logistically to bury cremated remains at a Catholic cemetery, Williams said. “If you scatter there really is no place to go visit,” Williams said. “And with Holy Cross having been here for 125 years every day we have people who are children, grandchildren and great nieces and great nephews” who visit, the Catholic cemeteries director said. “Cemeteries stand in testimony to lives lived.”

“When people have a place where they can go and visit, the grieving process is better and leads to more positive kinds of resolution, acceptance,” said Father Lavagetto.

In granting approval for the St. Dominic columbarium, Archbishop Niederauer said he took into account the careful planning presented by Father Lavagetto and the unique situation of the Dominicans’ ownership of the parish property. In general, the archdiocese recommends burial or interment at Holy Cross or one of the other Catholic cemeteries in the archdiocese. “I did not want to stand in the way since he had planned it very prudently,” said Archbishop Niederauer. “This is not a precedent. If there are other parishes that want to proceed with this in the future, we need to approach those requests on a parish by parish basis, judging the situation individually.”




From December 9, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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