WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN
Deacon Paul Croteau and Denise Rivest of Edmonton Catholic Cemeteries say they want to make their organization a welcoming for those seeking burial of their Catholic relatives.
Caring for the remains of those who have died is a serious business. For Edmonton Catholic Cemeteries, respect, even reverence, for the bodies of the deceased is seen in the light of Christ's promise of eternal life.
Today, however, not everyone sees things that way.
The current trend to cremation, for example, often means that the remains of a person do not always end up in a cemetery. Some people choose to scatter the ashes of their loved ones.
Denise Rivest, office manager and supervisor of family advisors for Catholic Cemeteries, finds that she sometimes must try to dissuade people from taking such an action.
"I say, 'Would you scatter a body?'" Rivest says. "Cremated remains have to be treated with the same reverence you treat a body in a casket."
Deacon Paul Croteau, the new director of Catholic Cemeteries, recalls one family that wanted to spread their mother's ashes around the family farmyard. "I talked to the sons about how mom would feel when the farm was sold."
Eventually the family decided to bring a pail of dirt from the farm and allow each person to put a handful in the grave, Croteau said.
Others do not scatter the ashes, but simply keep them in an urn at home.
"Sometimes (if a parent dies) in the dead of winter, they'll say, 'Let's take mom or dad home. We'll do it in the spring.' I see no problem with that."
For others, however, the urn might remain at home for several years.
"They think, 'If mom's on the mantle, mom's still here,'" he said. The job of Catholic Cemeteries in such cases is to help people understand that the cemetery is the proper place for human remains.
Says Rivest: "We tell them the cemetery is a sacred place and it's been blessed. People come here to pray and show respect for their parents. Maybe it's time you brought her here to the cemetery and gave her a proper burial."
A proper burial.
"We feel that it's in reverence for people who have passed away that we should have a priest or deacon to administer that final farewell," she says.
Croteau says he reminds people of the prayer said at the graveside: "Heavenly Father, please bless this gravesite and send your holy angel to watch over it always."
The 13 year-round staff overseeing Edmonton's five Catholic cemeteries, along with a mausoleum and two columbaria, may not be angels. But they are dedicated to ensuring that human remains will be properly cared for in perpetuity.
They're also dedicated to treating family members of the deceased with compassion and empathy.
The family advisors bring life experience to their work counselling the bereaved, says Rivest. "We've dealt with the death of our parents, our siblings and our friends. It allows us to bring the compassion of Christ to each situation because we've dealt with it in our own lives."
When people arrive at the cemeteries office, they are often upset, she says. Usually, they end up saying when they leave that it wasn't as bad as they expected.
"The last thing we want," says Croteau, "is a family to leave here upset saying, 'Now I know why people are leaving the Catholic Church.' We have to make this a welcoming home."
In that regard, Catholic Cemeteries stresses the importance of pre-planning your funeral.
"Pre-planning is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children," says Croteau. It means not burdening them with the cost of a plot or cremain space as well as the burial.
More importantly, he says, it helps the family at a time of emotional distress. "Pre-planning doesn't take that emotion away. But they won't have to make difficult decisions under emotional distress."
Making arrangements in advance with Catholic Cemeteries also sends a message to the next generation, he adds. "You're passing your faith along and you're telling your children what's important to you - 'This is my faith; this is what's important to me.'"
The death of a loved one is "an evangelization moment," says Croteau. "People always turn to God in anger or in comfort at that time."
He arranges to have a Mass said in memory of their loved one and, if they don't have a parish, he has it celebrated at Good Shepherd Parish where he serves as the deacon.
Sometimes the families attend; sometimes not. "But they always seem to appreciate it."
Croteau says it tends to bring a halt to dinner conversation when he tells people he works for Catholic Cemeteries. That doesn't matter to him.
"This is a ministry; this is more than a job," he says.
Rivest seconds that sentiment. "I get a lot of self-satisfaction out of my job just knowing that I've helped this person through such a difficult time."