By Rev. James Jackson, FSSP
When a bishop or priest consecrates or blessing something, he sets it aside from common or profane use to give it over to sacred use. In the cases of persons and things that are blessed or consecrated, they pass into a new state, and become instruments of Divine protection. This protection extends to those who have died; who have “gone before us marked with the sign of faith.”
Death is not some separation from the human race, it is instead a change, a passing over into a new state. In the Requiem of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite there is a line in the Preface which expresses this well; vita mutatur, non tollitur (life is changed, not ended). The notion is expressed further in the placing of six black candlesticks with candles of unbleached wax near the coffin. The candles on the altar, which represent the faithful still here on earth, are made of bleached wax. Here on earth we do not appear as we truly are – we are bleached wax. But the departed appear before God unbleached so to speak – as they truly are.
It must be said that since Catholic burial is an honor and a privilege granted by the Church to the baptized, it follows that the Church may determine who is worthy of it. Our practice of course is to interpret prohibition of burial as mildly as possible, and doubtful cases can always be referred to the bishop. Of course any Catholic is free to determine where they want to be buried. But what about being buried in consecrated ground?
Consecrated ground refers to churches and cemeteries, which have received the blessing of the bishop in a lovely liturgical rite, though the phrase ‘consecrated ground’ is often used in a wider sense because of some action or event at some particular place like Lincoln did about Gettysburg.
The consecration of a Catholic cemetery is ancient; it was certainly in practice by AD 593, when it was mentioned by St. Gregory of Tours. And once the consecration has taken place, a cemetery is held to be sacred by the Church and to a large extent even by non-Christians. It is sacred not only because of the consecration however, but also because of the great number of prayers said there, and because of the Cross and various sacred images, and because the cemetery holds the relics of many who are already enjoying the Beatific Vision.
The very word cemetery is full of meaning. Its etymology is immediately from the Latin coemeterium, which derives from the Greek koimeterion from two words meaning to “put to sleep in a place.” The word is much in keeping with our prayer “Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord.” Part of the whole Catholic notion of rest has to do with our community, our Church. Thus a Catholic cemetery is in a sense a family plot, a resting place for brothers and sisters.
A Catholic burial is considered as holy when the body of the deceased is buried with honors in blessed ground or a blessed grave. A burial is considered profane if the body of the deceased is somehow desecrated to show disapproval. An example of profane burials is what happened to the bodies of Nazi war criminals condemned to death by the Nuremberg trials. They were burned, and the ashes thrown in a river not just to show dishonor to them, but also to prevent Nazi holdouts from using the graves as shrines. The message was clear (and approved by the bishop of Nuremberg) that their punishment would extend beyond the grave.
With these things being said, look for a moment at three prayers. They express the great importance of being buried in consecrated ground. The first two are from the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite; prayers the bishop says in the consecration of a cemetery.
Lord God, Father of everlasting glory, solace of the sorrowing, life of the just, glory of the lowly, we humbly importune you to keep this cemetery free from any vileness of unclean spirits, to cleanse and to bless it, and finally to give lasting wholeness to the bodies brought here for burial. And at the end of time, when the angels sound their trumpets, let all who have received the sacrament of baptism, who have persevered in the Catholic faith until death, and who have had their remains laid to rest in this cemetery, be rewarded in body and in soul with the unending joys of heaven; though Christ our Lord.
It is indeed fitting and right, worthy and salutary that we should always and everywhere give thanks to you, O Lord, holy Father, almighty everlasting God, through Christ our Lord. For He is eternal day, unfailing light, and everlasting splendor, who commanded His followers to so walk in the light as to escape the darkness of never ending night, and happily come to the abode of light. He is the One who in His humanity wept over Lazarus, and in His divine power raised up the dead, restoring life to that man four days consigned to the tomb. Through Him, then, we humbly entreat you, O Lord, that on the last day, at the angels’ trumpet-call, you would loose from the fetters of sin those who are buried in this cemetery, granting them everlasting happiness and numbering them in the ranks of the blessed. Thus may they come to know that you, our everlasting life, are merciful and benign, and may have cause to exalt you as the author of life and to sing your praises with the saints forevermore.
The second is from the Book of Blessings of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, used for the blessing of the individual grave.
Lord Jesus Christ, by your own three days in the tomb, you hallowed the graves of all who believe in you and so made the grave a sign of hope that promises resurrection even as it claims our mortal bodies. Grant that our brother/sister N. may sleep here in peace until you awaken him/her to glory, for you are the resurrection and the life. Then he/she will see you face to face and in your light will see light and know the splendor of God, for you live and reign for ever and ever.
To be laid to rest with our brethren, with many prayers and intercessions, with divine protection extending to the next life, with holiness, with a witness to the importance of the unity of the Church, a witness to the faith, in union with what all our ancestors in the faith practiced from the earliest days of the Church, should be for all of us, great incentives to be buried in consecrated ground. It’s not the same as unconsecrated ground.
I want those intercessions, those blessings when I die. I want them for my beloved parishioners. I’d like us all to be buried in consecrated ground.