Faith and tradition define Catholic cemetery aesthetics

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In a poetic coincidence, Virginia's last remaining river lighthouse neighbors the state's first Catholic cemetery, established in 1795. Under the roar of the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, at the southern edge of Old Town Alexandria, St. Mary's Cemetery and Jones Point Park still manage to be places of peace for Washingtonians. Yet, even with the Potomac lapping its shores, the beautiful historic park fails to inspire the same serenity as the resting place for the dead. Cemeteries, regardless of age or size, have an aura.

"Since the earliest days of the church, Catholics have been buried together in sacred ground awaiting the resurrection of their bodies," wrote Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl in an official statement for the archdiocese's cemetery office. "In these first Catholic cemeteries, friends and family would gather frequently to celebrate Mass and pray for the souls of the deceased at their graves. This Christian hope and experience still continues in our day."

Catholic cemeteries reflect these beliefs through their art and symbolism, from personal memorials to shrines.

"Art is in cemeteries for prayerful reflection," said John Spalding, director of cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Roman Szabelski, director of cemeteries for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said that "all aspects of a cemetery's art must add to the beauty and sacredness. It must hold to faithfulness."

The Archdiocese of Chicago, which has large Polish and Hispanic communities, is home to shrines that pay homage to what Szabelski calls "ethnic attachments." Two such shrines in Milwaukee are dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe and were installed last year. The shrines, which were conceived by Gianfranco Tassara of Inspired Artisans, are two nearly identical granite sculptures, located in different cemeteries. The only difference lies in their size: One is 30 feet tall, while the other is 12.

Chicago requires that all personal memorials possess a Christian symbol based on personal preference. This may include a patron saint, the Blessed Mother, the Sacred Heart of Jesus or a butterfly, a symbol of new life. Those of the Jewish faith buried in a Catholic cemetery, perhaps because of a spousal connection, may choose the Star of David, which Szabelski said, "still counts as a Christian symbol."

In Washington, Spalding said that personal memorials may "tie in emblems and other choices that don't go against the teachings of the church." A family may choose a baseball emblem for someone who was a baseball-lover.

After deciding the materials and visual look of a memorial, Spalding said his office works with families to write the inscription and lock down the exact spelling of a name.

"Symmetry is important," said Spalding. "That helps guide the layout of the words."

After the family signs a contract, the artisans will take over: someone to cast the bronze, someone to cut the granite, someone to engrave the name and inscription.

According to Spalding, one of the biggest trends shaping the look of Catholic cemeteries is the rise in cremations, which now account for 17 percent of all Catholic burials. The Catholic Church lifted its ban on cremation in 1963, previously decreeing that all Catholics were to be, like Christ, entombed or buried.

"Thirty years ago, you might have had a cremation once a year," said Spalding.

In Arlington, there are no diocesan cemeteries. Instead, nine Arlington parishes maintain their own cemeteries. Three of those cemeteries are in small towns in Eastern Virginia: King George, Kilmarnock and Hague.

The Sacred Heart Cemetery in Winchester dates back to shortly before the turn of 20th century. Father Stanley J. Krempa, former pastor at St. Mary Church and current pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, describes it as a "conservative," "standard" and "typical" Catholic cemetery.

"The infants section is very moving," said Father Krempa. "A statue of the Virgin Mary overlooks the young children's graves. Because the cemetery lies across the street from an elementary school, sometimes you can hear children playing in the background while a funeral is taking place."

When asked about the main aesthetic differences between Catholic and non-Catholic cemeteries, Father Krempa said, "Catholic cemeteries have more statuary than other types of cemeteries. Secular cemeteries, in comparison, tend to have lots of urns."

"The biggest changes have not so much been in cemeteries as they have been in funerals," he added. "Wakes used to last two days. Now, the formal grieving process has been truncated."

As a funeral director, Thomas W. Gale, co-owner of Currie Funeral Home in Kilmarnock, helps families plan funerals. His funeral home shares a parking lot with St. Francis de Sales Church, a parish his business has served since 1924.

"Every parish has its own (funeral) mores, customs and folkways," said Gale. "In a small community, funeral directors are members of the community just as parishioners are. We are their neighbors. We live, breathe and self-perpetuate together."

One funeral custom at St. Francis de Sales Church is to walk the casket from the funeral parlor to the cemetery instead of transporting it by hearse.

"It's a symbolic walk," said Gale. "We walk as far as we can humanly walk, just as the deceased has walked as far as they can humanly walk through life. Their life is now with the Father."

Circumstances may affect how Catholics are buried, especially in cemeteries meant for people of all faiths.

"During World War I, soldiers would be buried (in Europe), and they would not be transferred (to the United States). It was gut-wrenching," said Nora Heimann, art department chair and associate professor of art history at the Catholic University in Washington. Heimann said the Knights of Columbus would organize trips for American Catholic parents to see the graves of their children in France and Belgium.

"There may have been a few reasons for not transferring the bodies or separating the soldiers by faith," said Heimann. "Those reasons may have been financial or about practicality or the idea that it was more egalitarian" to bury soldiers from mixed socio-economic backgrounds.

But usually, Father Krempa said, "Cemeteries are cemeteries." With the 20th century, they became increasingly standardized.

"Cemeteries are not a place for a lot of innovation," said Father Krempa. "They are a place for peace, a place of respite. People come here and remember."

Find out more

Read more about St. Mary's Cemetery in St. Mary's: 200 Years for Christ (1795-1995), available for sale at the St. Mary Church rectory, 310 Duke Street, Alexandria.

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015