“By burying the bodies of the faithful, the Church confirms her faith in the resurrection of the body, and intends to show the great dignity of the human body as an integral part of the human person whose body forms part of their identity. She cannot, therefore, condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the ‘prison’ of the body,” the Vatican stated in the document.
“Furthermore, burial in a cemetery or another sacred place adequately corresponds to the piety and respect owed to the bodies of the faithful departed who through Baptism have become temples of the Holy Spirit and in which ‘as instruments and vessels the Spirit has carried out so many good works,’” the document added.
The offer of free interment also ensures a proper resting place for the remains even if a family is unable to afford burial fees, said Gary Schaaf, executive director of Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services in Northern Colorado.
A typical Catholic funeral and burial can cost a family around $5,000 or more, Schaaf said. Even for more minimal services, such as a simple cremation and interment, families can expect around $2,000 worth of expenses.
Some families in need will qualify for state assistance with funeral costs, Schaaf said, but ultimately the burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy, and the Catholic Church does not want anyone left without an option for a proper burial.
“That's part of our Catholic mission and ministry,” he said.
These free interments take place on a monthly basis at Mount Olivet Cemetery, the largest Catholic cemetery in Denver, which is also home to the nation’s oldest Catholic mortuary. Schaaf said that Catholics from nearby parishes will often come to pray at these services, and the families of the deceased are invited to attend as well. So far, he said, the cemetery has taken in about 700 otherwise unburied or unclaimed cremated remains.
He added that prior to the 2016 Vatican document, free interments had been taking place at Mount Olivet on a case-by-case basis. For example, he said, they have been contacted by mortuaries that have gone out of business and had unclaimed cremated remains in their care, which were then taken in my Mount Olivet.
“We've tried to get the word out, even more so in the last couple of years, to parishes that, again, if somebody has cremated remains at home, if finances are an issue, we will lay them to rest for free,” he said.
The mission of Schaaf’s ministry is to “fill the void of loss with faith,” he said, and proper burials of remains can provide a healthy way for families to cope with death.
“We see that you can't avoid these things, that eventually they have to be dealt with,” he said of cremated remains that are unburied for years.
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“And by dealing with them through the optic of faith, it's very healthy, and it's also very spiritually sound as well,” he added.
“There's a story from our sister cemeteries in California where there was a man who had been homeless for a couple of years, and he was carrying his wife's cremated remains around in a shopping cart,” Schaaf said.
“And he just didn't know what to do. Imagine the anxiety of not knowing what to do with that and just the enormous pressure. One, you're lonely, you're homeless. Maybe your priority in life was taking care of your spouse, and now they pass away. It's just tragic on a multitude of levels,” he said.
“And so I know that that gentleman, our ability to lay his loved one in sacred space and then in essence help him fill the void of loss with faith...was profound.”
The interment does not take away the wound of loss, Schaaf added, “but it does allow that wound to heal. And wounds, in a sense, they heal sometimes with scar tissue, and scar tissue often is stronger than regular tissue.”
Besides free interment for cremated remains, Schaaf said Mt. Olivet Cemetery also provides burials for about 99% of the homeless and indigent population of the Denver area, as well as free burials for any baby that died in the womb.