There was relief and sadness June 10 as parishioners of St. Peter and St. Denis in Yonkers brought urns with the cremated remains of 10 family members to a poignant communal Funeral Mass at the church and solemn burial at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne.
The men and women were the first to accept Cardinal Dolan’s invitation to bury their loved ones in the new St. Joseph of Arimathea section, one of several attractive low-cost options offered at each of the four cemeteries maintained by the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Father Jose Felix Ortega, L.C., pastor of St. Peter and St. Denis, said, “Some people keep the ashes due to the cost of burying them, or because they don’t have a final decision on where to place them: in the U.S.A. or their countries of origin. But I think that many have a lack of acceptance of the death of their beloved ones—and these are the ones who need our help in what is, for some, a long and painful process.”
When he announced the initiative in his Catholic New York column at the beginning of Lent, Cardinal Dolan said he was concerned that people were keeping the cremated remains of their relatives at home, instead of following Church teaching that they be buried with the same dignity and respect associated with a full body burial. He said, “Ashes are supposed to be reserved in sacred places, namely Catholic cemeteries, to make sure the deceased is memorialized and included in the prayers and remembrances of the entire believing community.”
Father Ortega said his predominantly Spanish-speaking parish celebrates an annual communal wedding to offer couples living together outside of marriage an opportunity to “regularize their situation.” The idea of a communal funeral and burial was a welcome solution to a persistent issue.
Fabiola Mejia, a pastoral assistant at the parish, said the initiative was announced several times from the pulpit and in the bulletin and followed by an information session for interested families with a representative of the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“We explained the Catholic tradition regarding the burial of the dead and our understanding that bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit,” Father Ortega said.
“All the people were grateful for the initiative, although not everyone participated at the end. One woman told me the encouragement to bring the ashes to the cemetery was ‘the best gift she had received in a while,’” he said.
Father Ortega said the daily reading from the Book of Tobit used at the Funeral Mass focused on acting with charity, burying the dead, helping with the grieving process, and moving forward with acceptance and detachment. “It was a perfect coincidence that we were doing the same as Tobit was doing,” he said.
Under a clear blue sky at Gate of Heaven, mourners gathered in a grassy expanse surrounded by low hedges. They placed their urns on a table draped with a red cloth. Father Ortega led the committal service, which included prayers and songs.
“There was a lot of relief. For many it was the last step they needed to take. One person told me members of her family did not know she had been keeping ashes. She was happy to finally move forward,” the pastor said.
The urns were put into a vault in the ground. The names of all of the deceased buried in the section will be engraved on a communal marker.
The area is named for St. Joseph of Arimathea, the disciple who removed Jesus’ lifeless body from the cross on Good Friday and laid him to rest in a tomb intended for his own family.
Burial of cremated remains in the St. Joseph of Arimathea sections at Gate of Heaven, Calvary in Queens, Resurrection on Staten Island, and Ascension in Airmont costs $250.