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CURRENT ISSUE:  February 6, 2006VOL. 44, NO. 3Oakland, CA

Diocese adds mortuary to cemetery services

Church teaching supports cremation


Blazing a new trail among Catholic cemeteries, the Diocese of Oakland has become the first in the U.S. to offer cremation services and one of only three nationwide with mortuary operations.

The services have been available since Jan. 17, when the diocese acquired Machado’s Hillside Mortuary at 1051 Harder Rd., in Hayward. The funeral home, located next to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, will be known as Holy Angels Funeral and Cremation Services when the diocese completes licensing requirements.

With this acquisition, Oakland joins the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Archdiocese of Denver in offering mortuary services through the Church.

Mike Rogers, who ran five funeral homes with a for-profit organization serving the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, has joined the Oakland Diocese as director of the new operation. He will also oversee a second mortuary site set to open at St. Joseph Cemetery in San Pablo in 2007.

Robert Seelig, director of Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services, said the diocese decided to offer cremation services because the Church now accepts this practice and 50 percent of Catholics are choosing it. “If they choose cremation,” he said, “we thought we should participate in it. We want to give people guidance on it.”
At the former Machado’s, he said, the diocese is taking down fences that separate the site from Holy Sepulchre Cemetery and putting in a road to connect it with the cemetery. Two visitation rooms in the mortuary are being made into chapels.

Plans at St. Joseph Cemetery call for building a “church-like structure” with a chapel seating about 150 people, a bell tower, and a corridor leading to a separate building that will contain offices, visitation rooms, and a reception center. In the future, the diocese also plans funeral facilities at Holy Cross Cemetery in Antioch and Queen of Heaven in Lafayette.

St. Joseph’s may eventually add embalming and refrigeration facilities, but for now, Seelig said, the former Machado’s will remain the central site for preparing bodies for burial. “Most likely the next location with whole service would be in Antioch at Holy Cross Cemetery,” he said, because it is located at a greater distance from Hayward.

He also said the diocese “will be talking to other funeral homes to see if they want to sell in the future,” and he added that Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services will continue to work closely with local funeral homes when families choose to use them.

The Diocese of Oakland began considering a move into the mortuary business in the mid-1990s, Seelig said, after the funeral industry had started to consolidate cemetery and mortuary services at single sites.

“We see a lot of Catholics going to nonsectarian funeral homes and cemeteries,” he said, “because they can get served at one site. Families have been asking us if we’ve thought about providing funeral home service, and they were concerned when scandals about cremation came out in the news.”

Now, with diocesan funeral and cremation services, Seelig said, the Church is “offering peace of mind to people who don’t know where to turn.” It is also offering lower prices in a way that encourages families to arrange for full Catholic rites – a vigil service, funeral Mass and burial – without concern for cost.

Mortuaries typically offer a discounted funeral package when the family buys a casket from the funeral home. A traditional Catholic funeral at the discounted rate runs from $3,600 to $4,000 or more, Seelig said, without the casket. Families can also reduce costs by not going to the parish for the funeral Mass.

Holy Angels is charging $2,400 for the full package, he said, and not requiring families to buy a casket from the mortuary. The price – which does not include extras such as flowers or a police escort – remains the same whether the family has the body moved to the parish for the Mass or not.

“We wanted people to take full advantage of the Catholic funeral rite,” Seelig said, “and go back to the parish. By reducing costs, we take cost issues out of the decision making. We don’t want parishioners short-cutting the rite because of money.”

The mortuary is also reducing the cost of caskets, he said, and it will charge $2,400 for cremation services as well. An urn is included in the cremation package, along with permanent storage of cremator remains in a crypt. Families could also choose to buy a grave for these remains or to memorialize the deceased in a cenotaph wall, which includes names of the deceased and spaces for flowers.

“Prices are lower,” Seelig said, “because we want people to focus more on the ceremony than on the cost. We don’t have a profit motive. It’s a ministry.”

Combining the mortuary and cemetery, he said, allows the Church to “make a difficult process a bit easier.” Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services is open to all faiths, not only to Catholics, and it provides financial help for the poorest members of the community, he said.

The diocese will continue to allow for pre-arrangements, where families or individuals can buy funeral services in advance.


Church teaching supports cremation

Cremation once held an outlaw status within the Church, but the centuries-old prohibition has been wiped off the books, and in recent decades canon law has allowed the practice, with few restrictions.

Until Vatican II reforms loosened the rule, Catholics were denied a Christian burial if they chose cremation. Only grave public necessity – such as the plague or a natural disaster – allowed for exceptions.

This changed in May 1963, when the Church decided that Catholics could request cremation for any sound reason, and it was codified into the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983. The law now allows this choice, except when it is based on rejection of Christian teachings or hatred of the Church.

“The Church earnestly recommends that the pious custom of burial be retained,” the Code of Canon Law reads. “But it does not forbid cremation, unless this is chosen for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching.”

The Church also prefers that the body of the deceased be present at the funeral Mass, even if cremation is to follow. In that case, a committal ceremony should be held when the remains become available. If it is not possible to have the body at the church, the funeral Mass may take place with the cremated remains present.

Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Hayward is the first to have a mortuary on site.


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