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 October 18, 2010   •   VOL. 48, NO. 18   •   Oakland, CA

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On All Souls Day, Lithuanian Catholics remember victims of Soviet occcupation
Cremation is now an acceptable option for Catholics
On All Souls Day, Lithuanian Catholics remember victims of Soviet occcupation

Throughout the days of October, the sky in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, transforms from a brilliant blue to a cold grey. Then, almost overnight the linden and maple trees around the Dominican church, Sts. Philip and James, on Lukiskiu Square turn from green to gold to barren, occupied once again by hordes of quarreling crows, shrieking from high up in their dead-stick nests. I am reminded that All Souls’ Day will soon be upon us.

It is a major holiday, remembering the dead in this Catholic country where one out of every six citizens was exterminated by the Soviets during their 50-year occupation. Throughout the week for All Saints and All Souls Days, older folks, mostly women, come into the sacristy of our church before the noon Mass. They carry paper bags, wrinkled and faded and stained.

Inside the well-used bags are candles, but they are different from the ones we see in the U.S. They are rough and handmade from honey-colored beeswax, and the wicks seem to be made from any available pieces of string.

An elderly woman lights a candle on a grave at a cemetery in the village of Ivenets, Belarus, Nov. 1, 2007. Like Catholics in neighboring Lithuania, Catholics in Belarus mark All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day by visiting graves of their relatives.

In Lithuania, you do not buy honey in jars at the store. You buy it on street corners when it is still in the honeycomb from farm ladies who bring it in from the countryside, where so many people still live.

The honey, of course, is as fragrant as a Baltic summer field. And for non-natives like me, it is a treat to see the farm ladies in their practical coats and sturdy shoes, kerchiefs tied around their heads, come into the city during harvest time.

Making candles for the vigil

The city people wait anxiously for them every year, first, of course, for the sweet honey, but also for the beeswax from the combs. They need it for their candles.

In the sacristy they come up to me and, with hands obviously accustomed to hard work, hold the bags out for me to bless. It is not as easy task for me. Seeing their humble piety, the hours of work evident in the candles, the calloused hands themselves — all of these cause my eyes to fill up and my voice to shake.

But I bless the candles, in Lithuanian if I can manage it, or in Latin if I can’t, which is usually the case. And without a word, they leave and go back into the church for the start of Mass.

For the last 50 years our church and priory have been situated in Lenin Square (not Lukiskiu Square) and facing us is the old KGB headquarters. This is where the Soviets brought many of the hundreds of thousands who were considered enemies of the state, especially those who were religious, and fit only for annihilation.

Over a thousand never made it out of the KGB building alive, having been shot to death in the dirt-floored basement. Their bodies were then secretly trucked out at night to a small cemetery just outside the city where they were dumped in a trench prepared for mass burial.

Discovery of mass graves

A few years ago that mass grave was discovered, the bodies exhumed and identified if possible, and then reburied honorably in the cemetery’s new National Memorial built for that purpose.

Each November 1, the night of All Saints, the people take their beeswax candles to these graves and the graves of their relatives in all the cemeteries around the Old City and light them. They burn all through the cold night, giving a rich honey-colored glow to the Old City’s hills. Then they are re-lit on the feast of All Souls, to brighten another grim November night.

Not knowing where they are

We too remember our dead, but for us it is different. For the most part we know where they are buried. We were able to be there for the funerals and the burials, to mourn them and say goodbye.

Everyone in Lithuania, in all the Baltics, lost at least one loved one to the Soviet terror. But they don’t know where they are. Some were last seen at the horrific moment when the Soviet police banged open their door and dragged them out to the street to one of those big, black Russian cars that still strike terror. Others were herded into a group, stuffed into the back of a truck, and then driven away to the KGB building or the railroad yard and the waiting cattle cars. Many simply left for work or school in the morning and never came back.

20th-century martyrs

We look to the Church’s early martyrs with great reverence. During the 20th century, however, there were more martyrs, more victims of religious persecution than in all the previous 1900 years of the Church’s existence.

Why were they taken away? What had they done? Where were they taken? What happened to them? Where did they die? Were they even buried? Their families never knew. Hundreds of thousands. Everyone lost someone, many their entire family.

And in that, I now realize, is the meaning of the candles. They light them, of course, for the dead buried in the cemetery. But they light them also as their point of contact with those who disappeared. They are able to take the blessed candles, made with their own hands with beeswax from their own land and light them to burn throughout the two nights.

They light them to dispel the darkness under which they lived for 50 years. They light them to renew the light of human memories. They light tem with the hope that, wherever they may lie, the souls of their dead may be in the hands of God.

(Dominican Father David O’Rourke is parochial administrator of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Point Richmond and Defender of the Bond in the diocesan Canon Law/Marriage Tribunal. He is co-producer, with Dominican Father Kenneth Gumbert, of the documentary film “Red Terror on the Amber Coast” about the 50-year Soviet occupation of the Baltic republics. On Aug. 23 of this year the film aired on national television to mark the anniversary of Stalin’s 1939 takeover. It received the highest ratings in its time slot, beating out all the regular prime-time shows. This article first appeared in the October 2010 newsletter of the Dominican Mission Foundation)

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Cremation is now an acceptable option for Catholics

The Catholic Church is generally well known for its teachings on the dignity of human life but perhaps less so for its teachings on the dignity of human death. Reverence for the human person, body and soul, extends even beyond the end of life and is amply expressed in its funeral liturgies as well as its respect for the body of the deceased.

One area of Catholic tradition that is sometimes poorly understood is the question of cremation. Once frowned upon by the Church and still discouraged to some degree, cremation today can be an acceptable option for Catholics in making final arrangements.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about cremation from a Catholic perspective.

What does the Catholic Church teach about cremation? Isn’t the Church opposed to the practice?

The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law states that the Church “earnestly recommends” traditional burial but accepts cremation as long as the choice is not made “for reasons which are contrary to Christian teaching” (canon 1176). The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes this teaching (no. 2301).

The cremation option is a fairly recent development.

When the Church was still in its infancy, cremation was associated with pagan religions that denied the resurrection of the body.

The early Christians, out of belief in the resurrection and the understanding that the body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19), were careful to treat the human body with great reverence even after death. They would anoint and bury or entomb the body just as the Jews did.

That tradition stood firm until 1963, when the Vatican’s doctrinal office issued an instruction allowing cremation under conditions that would be enshrined two decades later in the canon cited above.

If cremation is chosen, when should it take place: Before the funeral liturgy, or afterward?

The strong preference of the Church is that the body be present for the funeral liturgy and that cremation, if desired, take place afterward.

The Church holds that the presence of the body more clearly expresses our due reverence for the body and our hope of resurrection and eternal life. The body is not merely a hollow shell that our spirits occupy; it is part of our identity.

The human person comprises both body and soul. It is by our physical appearance that we are known by our loved ones and will be remembered for our faith and our virtuous deeds.

The presence of the body of the deceased also inevitably leads us to reflect on the mysteries of life and death and to accept the reality of our loss.

Nevertheless, there are circumstances under which the funeral Mass may be celebrated after cremation.

In 1969, the revised Order of Christian Funerals for the first time allowed the committal rite to be performed for cremated remains at the crematorium, columbarium, or grave site.

In 1997, the Vatican granted an indult to the bishops of the United States allowing funeral rites, including the Mass, to be celebrated with the cremated remains present.

However, it is left to the pastoral judgment of each diocesan bishop to decide whether to permit this practice within his diocese. Present policy in the Diocese of Oakland allows this option.

Whenever cremated remains are present, the language of the rite is adapted (e.g., by substituting “earthly remains” for “body”).

What are the relative advantages of cremation over traditional burial?

Final arrangements involving cremation are generally less expensive than the arrangements with traditional burial. Some people see cremation as more dignified. Others find it more convenient, particularly when the remains are to be transported over a great distance to reach the final resting place.

Suppose I have a loved one cremated. What am I to do with the cremated remains?

It is important to note that the cremated remains of the deceased must always be treated with the same reverence and respect as the body.

Cremated remains properly must be placed in a dignified container that is either buried in a cemetery or interred in a mausoleum, columbarium, crypt or family burial plot.

For members of the Catholic faithful, it is most appropriate to choose a Catholic cemetery or mausoleum for burial or interment.

Many cemeteries have designated chapels or walls with small niches for placing urns, usually with a granite-fronted plate for inscription or a glass-fronted plate where photos and mementos can be placed. A tombstone or memorial plate should identify the site of the remains.

It is not in keeping with the dignity of the person to store or display the cremated remains in the home, nor to divide the remains for burial or interment in multiple locations.

Burial at sea is acceptable if an urn containing the complete set of remains is submerged in the water. For U.S. Catholics, scattering of ashes — whether at sea, on land or in the air — is not permitted.

How do I arrange for the cremation of a loved one who has died?

In the Oakland Diocese, you can contact the office of Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services at 1-800-498-4989 or www.cfcslivingourmission.org.

CFCS operates its own mortuary and crematorium and can help Catholics plan for all the details involved with the dignified care of the deceased, which may include embalming, visitation, online memorial, vigil, funeral service or Mass, committal rite, and burial or interment at any of the Catholic cemeteries or columbaria in the diocese.

CFCS offers a church-owned oak casket that can be rented so that the body may be present at the funeral prior to cremation, which saves the family from having to purchase a casket.

For families who have cremated remains in their possession and do not know what to do with them, CFCS will inter them free of charge in a Catholic cemetery through its Holy Angels Remembrance Program. This service is available to everyone regardless of religious faith.

May I stipulate that my own body be cremated after death?

Cremation can be designated in any advance funeral arrangements.

Pre-planning your own funeral arrangements or that of a loved one can significantly ease the burden on survivors who might otherwise have to make such critical decisions hurriedly during stressful times.

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