One of my life’s defining moments occurred before I could read the back of a cereal box. I was four years old, too young to tie my own shoes, when I stood on tiptoes and looked into my father’s casket. He was just thirty seven. His bipolar disorder had overcome his brilliant mind, and he died a victim of suicide. I wept and wept while my dad’s body was moved to the crematorium. At the time, his remains could not be interred at our local Catholic cemetery, a crushing blow for those who understood better than I did. The distance from our family’s faith when we most needed closeness would leave a lifelong impression.
Burial and respect for the dead are core differentiators between humans and beasts. We have evidence1 that even the earliest humans buried their dead. We know that ritual and symbolism have always been an essential part of the human experience. Ancient epics like the Iliad remind us of the social role funeral ritual and communal grieving played thousands of years ago, as Achilles rallied his comrades to mourn Patroclus:
“. . . Draw near to the body and mourn Patroclus, in due honor to the dead. When we have had full comfort of lamentation we will unyoke our horses and take supper all of us here.” On this they all joined in a cry of wailing and Achilles led them in their lament. Thrice did they drive their chariots all sorrowing round the body, and Thetis stirred within them a still deeper yearning. The sands of the seashore and the men’s armor were wet with their weeping, so great a minister of fear was he whom they had lost.
Throughout human history, burying the dead has been a mystical experience that transcends cultures, religions, and tribes. Today, following the Judeo-Christian tradition, Catholic burial practices in America have a rich history and are continuing to evolve. My life’s work as the CEO of a funeral and cemetery management organization has given me a unique perspective on this ancient and yet ever new industry.
Over the course of time, burial practices have become more liturgically ordered. No longer mere rituals for communal grief, Christian funeral rites were built on the knowledge that death is followed by eternal life. “. . . . The Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end nor does it break the bonds forged in life. The Church also ministers to the sorrowing and consoles them in the funeral rites with the comforting word of God and the sacrament of the eucharist” (Order of Christian Funerals, #4). By focusing on the passion, death, and ultimate resurrection of Christ, Catholic funerals put the deceased into the context of Christ’s empathy—a man who suffered with and for us, and who himself experienced death. For a divine figure to offer empathy and to show us how to die well was an innovation in human history. Burying the dead became known as a corporal work of mercy.2
Down through centuries, beyond its religious significance, burying the dead took on vital importance related to hygiene and municipal real estate issues. For example, highly transmissible diseases like yellow fever and cholera were rampant in Manhattan in the mid-19th century. Hazardous and unsanitary conditions made a cemetery worker’s job dangerous. The transition from the old church graveyards to “park land” specifically set aside was a necessity. Looking across the East River to plentiful farmland in northern Brooklyn and western Queens, the New York City Council passed the Rural Cemetery Act of 1847, which allowed for easier purchasing of tax-free property designated for use as a cemetery.
Part of a larger group of statutes that facilitated cooperation between municipalities and charitable organizations, the Rural Cemetery Act turned the burial of human remains into a commercial endeavor. A subsequent “land rush” brought churches and speculators across the river to acquire land and build what is known today as the Cemetery Belt of Brooklyn and Queens (easily visible from the air for its sheer size). It is estimated that there are over 5,000,000 people buried in Queens alone, more than double the 2.4 million people living there today. But the hygiene issues related to burials that cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco faced in the 1850s were nothing compared to the challenge America was about to face with the onset of a major conflict.
If there was a single event in our history that radically changed the funeral and cemetery industry, it was the Civil War. Fought throughout cities, towns, villages, and even individual farms across the country, the war’s death tolls reached numbers theretofore unseen. This conflict gave rise to the standardization of the coffin manufacturing industry and rigorous municipal rules on burying the dead that still inform our thinking today.
Over the centuries, the overwhelming majority of the many millions of burials have been marked by tremendous respect for the individual who has died and a recognition of our common human bond. It is concerning, then, that our postmodern society is not simply doing away with religious ritual but in fact losing touch with death itself.
San Francisco has essentially prohibited cemeteries from existing in its city limits, as Joseph Bottum3 reminded us, adding that “The significance of life derives from the presence of the future, while the richness of life derives from the presence of the past.” This richness of life is lost when billionaires4 and enthusiasts of transhumanism like Larry Ellison, Peter Thiel, and Sergey Brin pursue quixotic bids to somehow end mortality. The anti-aging industry will rake in about $67 billion5 this year. Our culture is doing all it can to discard our finite, mortal nature.
Of course, this desire to defeat mortality is as old as civilization itself. Remember the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, the Greek myth of Tithonus, husband of Eos, who asked for (and was granted by Zeus) eternal life. However, Eos forgot to ask that her husband also be granted eternal youth, so he was forced to live an eternity of constant and miserable decay, eventually begging for death. Fighting mortality has been a fool’s errand from time immemorial, yet we spend untold fortunes and brainpower trying to overcome death. Surely some wonderful medicines, technology, and health practices will result—that would prove some consolation to those seeking an endless lifespan.
Now, to be fair, not all Silicon Valley billionaires try to cheat death. “For death puts life into context,” said Apple founder Steve Jobs in his famous commencement speech at Stanford in 2005. In that same speech he proclaimed the following just after his first bout with cancer and six years prior to his own death:
This was the closest I’ve been to facing death, and I hope it’s the closest I get for a few more decades. Having lived through it, I can now say this to you with a bit more certainty than when death was a useful but purely intellectual concept: No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share.
No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
In his masterful encyclical letter Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis writes that death, “Can be experienced as the ultimate call to faith, the ultimate ‘Go forth from your land’ (Gen 12:1), the ultimate ‘Come!’ spoken by the Father, to whom we abandon ourselves in the confidence that he will keep us steadfast even in our final passage” (Lumen Fidei #56). Death reminds us not just of our humanity, but of our final destination and journey.
The ways we prepare for death and lay to rest our loved ones communicate the value we assign to human life and to each other’s immortal souls. Pope John Paul II initiated a dramatic “New Evangelization” within the Catholic Church: a revolutionary call to laypeople to live out their daily lives in such a way as to influence the culture and lead people to the good news of the Gospel. And it was in the context of this call to extensive and creative evangelization that I founded Catholic Funeral & Cemetery Services (CFCS) ten years ago with a small group of six employees.
After an increasingly successful business career, I eventually merged the private company I owned with a large, publicly traded company. After remaining on board for a few years to streamline the transition, I sought other challenges to pursue. It was around this time that my bishop asked me to look at his diocese’s failing cemetery operation. Cemetery operations? My friends were incredulous. Why did I want to leave a successful career to become a “cemetery guy”? Put simply, the problem was great and the opportunity was profound. I could see that there was a clear set of business problems to solve, and I was equipped to address them. Today CFCS employs over 600 people in more than 30 dioceses providing management operations and funeral home and cemetery services across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
What made the proposition so compelling to me was the challenge of learning how to equip the Church to accompany people when they most needed support and presence. If we could restore humanity to the end of life, we might unlock an unprecedented tool to evangelize and re-dignify death.
Mass attendance nationally has been falling for decades, and the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this trend. A recent study from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate revealed that 73 percent of Catholic young adults “somewhat” or “strongly” agree that they can be a good Catholic without attending Mass every Sunday; prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, just 13 percent of Catholic young adults surveyed reported attending mass at least once a week. Meanwhile, burials at cemeteries are on the rise (the Census Bureau projects that total annual U.S. funerals will increase from 2.8 million this year to 3.1 million by 2030 as the general population of the United States ages).6
During the Covid-19 pandemic, most people who experienced a death reported being prevented from taking part in the traditional mourning process, in some cases by being unable to see their loved one after death, and in other cases by being prevented from saying goodbye. Liturgically, we have always felt the need to respect the dead. Nation states have adopted this as well by showing tremendous respect for war dead, even sending the remains of rival warriors home. (Incidentally, this is one of the shocking things about recent reports of the Russian army bringing mobile incinerators to Ukraine for battlefield deaths in order to cover true numbers of deaths arising from that conflict. In cases like these we see disrespect for human persons continuing after death, which rightly causes condemnation.)
Closer to home, poverty, tragedy, and isolation continue to afflict many Americans. We have found that the best way to address social problems while caring for the dead is through targeted programs. Therefore we have launched several “Mission Programs” to tackle specific issues, and continue to expand upon them as needs arise. The “Mother Teresa Program,” for instance, allows us to provide dignified, sacred funeral and cemetery services to those who would otherwise be unable to pay for them. Funded by donations, this program is available to many community members, as well as victims of violent crimes. The “All Souls Remembrance Program” exists to allow a dignified committal in our All Souls Remembrance Crypt to anyone, of any faith, at any of our cemeteries. This program is available at no charge and ensures that remains can be permanently interred within the consecrated grounds of a Catholic cemetery, in accordance with the Order of Christian Funerals.
The experience of someone helped by the “All Souls Remembrance Program” may bring home its value. One day I received a call from a woman whose parents’ cremated remains had long been inhabiting her home. After her parents passed away, she kept intending to bring their remains from her home in California back to New York to be buried, but never got around to it. Then she heard of our program and called to ask about it. Her story poured out of her like a confession. She felt bad about delaying this nagging responsibility for so long, but hadn’t known what to do. When she learned about our program, she felt released from a sense of guilt and expressed her gratitude for this welcoming outreach by the Church. At last she could find closure for a concern she had carried with her for years. Through this program we have been able to meet people like this woman where they are and help them with their pain, guilt, or any other emotion God wishes to heal.
Another need we have identified is addressed by our Precious Lives Program. Through it we have created a special burial section, offered free of charge, for babies and children. Within these special burial areas, parents and families can come to express their profound feelings of grief and loss. Often they bring with them mementoes and toys. Some years ago, one family decided on a specific gravesite for their three-year-old son, who had died unexpectedly. It was separated by a fence from the baseball field of a Catholic high school. After the burial had taken place, the family realized that the grave was actually fifteen feet away from the one they had intended to bury him in. But when I met with them at the site to discuss the matter, I found they had suddenly changed their minds about the location they wanted for their child’s resting place. Arriving before me, they saw a baseball unexpectedly sail over the fence and come to rest right on the little patch of grass growing on their child’s grave. At that moment they knew their son was exactly where he was meant to be, because in life the three-year-old had loved tossing a little baseball back and forth with his parents.
Programs like these are important, and are a feature of our nature as a ministry. “Corporate Social Responsibility” programs cannot reach or engage the human person at their most meaningful level: the dignity inherent to them as people. But we can. Nonetheless, the corporate world does have a lot to teach us. My COO is a former McKinsey consultant; my corporate team includes high performers from the automotive industry, the legal profession, and other competitive, idea-rich businesses. Over 90 percent of our new hires are from outside the funeral industry. This helps fuel innovation and breathe new life into this generally stagnant industry.
And our mission to minister continues. I am continually motivated by my own childhood experience with the trauma of death. Fortunately, families who experience the pain of a loved one’s suicide no longer have to feel the added pain of the Church not burying the deceased in a Catholic cemetery. In the 1980s the Church amended the practice of refusing burial to those who die by suicide. With a better understanding of the complexity and role of mental health issues as a factor leading to suicide, the Church now leaves open the possibility for redemption and the need for a proper burial on their sacred grounds. I am very grateful for this.
At CFCS, our corporal work of mercy to bury the dead extends especially to those unloved and unclaimed; we have buried the unclaimed remains of hundreds of individuals after acquiring shuttered funeral homes. It happens quietly but at a far greater scale than many realize.
We have also been challenged to think outside the box for pressing burial needs related to geography. In Hawaii, the Diocese of Honolulu fought with the State of Hawaii for over forty years as Catholics were forced to be buried in non-Catholic cemeteries. Finally, we were successful in overcoming this issue by being permitted to build columbaria (structures that house cremated remains) in parishes around the diocese to allow for Catholic burials right at their church.
Whatever form this work takes, it is poignant and emotional. We often say that we exist not to bury the dead but to serve the living. The famous biblical story of Lazarus being raised from the dead hides an incredibly important component that often gets overlooked. It is recorded in John 11:35 and is the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept. The miracle grabs the headline but, quietly, for Jesus this shows an incredible ability to feel the pain of his friends. This empathy is the heartbeat of our work and one we try to emulate. It isn’t easy for our staff and we are constantly seeking new ways to handle stress that comes from a tipping point experience of dealing with hundreds of cases of sadness per year as compared to the stress that comes from a single, shocking event. They aren’t quite the same stressors.
Each new generation thinks it is living through the most unique, different, and important time in history. For individuals, this is always true. Our life is the only one we are able to live. The constant is civilization: how we choose to live together. Established rites and rituals around care for the dead have always been a hallmark of humanity and of civilization. We will continue looking at the Church’s ancient practices through our modern eyes to serve God’s people, one by one. It is more a mission than a business, but we are most successful when we merge both.
1. Paige Madison. “Who First Buried the Dead?” Anthropology. Feb 16, 2018. https://www.sapiens. org/culture/hominin-burial/
2. The Corporal Works of Mercy are found in the teachings of Jesus and give us a model for how we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise. They “are charitable actions by which we help our neighbors in their bodily needs” (USCCB). https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/ how-we-teach/new-evangelization/jubilee-of-mercy/the-corporal-works-of-mercy
3. Joseph Bottum. “Death & Politics.” First Things. June 2007. Death & Politics by Joseph Bottum
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4. Adam Leith Gollner. “The Immortality Financiers: The Billionaires Who Want to Live Forever.” Daily Beast. Aug 20, 2013; Revised July 11, 2017. https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-immortalityfinanciers-the-billionaires-who-want-to-live-forever
Robert Seelig is the CEO & Founder of Catholic Funeral & Cemetery Services (CFCS).