How Catholic Funeral, Cemetery Rites Can be Gateways to Evangelization

A statue of Christ is pictured in the cemetery of Jesus the Good Shepherd Church in Dunkirk, Md., May 6, 2021. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Over the past year, our nation has lost hundreds of thousands of souls to the pandemic that plunged our society into a crisis from which we are only now beginning to emerge. In a culture that traditionally relegates the topic of death to whispered, private conversation, we have been forced to confront head-on the fragility of our lives this side of the Kingdom of God.

Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services fill the void left by a society keeping death at arm’s length. This Church-owned nonprofit was established to walk with every Catholic through the experience of an end-of-life journey, fusing sound business and management principles with a concerted effort to unleash a renewed Catholic vitality, re-evangelizing Catholics about the hope and beauty found in the theology of Catholic end-of-life rites.

Death has been a source of both anxiety and fascination for humanity since the fall of our first parents in the Garden of Eden. Indeed, many find death to be a frightening prospect and spend their lives in search of distractions from its unrelenting finality. The Catholic response, however, has long been to emphasize death as a passage to eternal salvation. Catholic funeral rites, which are composed of the Vigil, the Funeral Liturgy, and the Committal, are designed to imitate and reflect the Christian hope that, in death, we find eternal life with our heavenly father.

“From beginning to end, a funeral evangelizes us, sharing the good news that God is near and that even in our sorrow, difficulties and distress, we can have joyful confidence in his providence,” Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron wrote in his 2018 pastoral note, An Act of Mercy and Faith. “On our end, through participating in the funeral liturgies, we proclaim to those who have little or no faith, or who do not practice it, the good news that God is mercy. We proclaim through our actions that we are certain that our loved ones are not memories, but that they are alive, they will arise and live for all eternity.”

Every detail of the rites is designed to remind those participating of their loved one’s eternal life. The coffin, for example, is clothed with the white pall, a reminder of our baptismal garment and the mark of eternal life. The sprinkling of holy water symbolizes our reverence for a body that will rise to meet its Savior on the last day. Far from a series of bleak gestures, the Catholic funeral rites are, to quote Pope Francis, “an act of great faith.”

They are also acts that fewer and fewer Catholics experience. With a culture ever more focused on clinging to youthful vitality, people today are less prepared to confront the reality of death, in particular the immediate need for a final resting place for the body. Further, the faithful increasingly view traditional end-of-life rites as exceedingly elaborate and overly costly. Shifting preferences and demographics, mounting costs, and an increase in secular competition have given rise to a dramatic shift toward cremation, with many opting to keep or scatter the cremated remains of their loved ones.

Whereas the 1950s saw a booming demand for cemetery plots, the cremation rate today in most parishes averages about 40 percent, with some dioceses seeing cremation rates as high as 75 percent. The 15 years between 2000 and 2015 saw a 30 percent drop in Catholic casketed services and a more than 200 percent rise in Catholic cremation services. And while the Church does not expressly prohibit cremation, its rise in popularity prompted the Vatican recently to reiterate its requirement that cremated remains be buried on sacred ground. Changing behaviors present new opportunities for the Church to reach people.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, it becomes immeasurably more important to accompany the faithful — devout or otherwise — through one of life’s most painful moments. Taking its cue from Pope Francis, CFCS works to evangelize the faithful using the beauty and meaning of Catholic end-of-life rites, which emphasize that the bodies of our dead are not keepsakes for the living, but rather remain temples for the Almighty in the next life. 

Those evangelization efforts are amplified by the application of financial acumen to run diocesan funeral and cemetery programs like a business primed for success. For instance, principles like the 80/20 rule help the typical cash poor but land rich diocese better leverage its assets. CFCS also employs a two-pronged approach of running diocesan cemetery programs like a start-up while using fine-tuned messaging and business savvy, which has taken funeral and cemetery operations from the red to the green in every single diocese where CFCS has been used, without reliance upon perpetual care funds that should be carefully guarded.

CFCS has established a 6 percent annual growth rate in the Oakland, Calif., diocese, for example, increasing available equity by $24 million and ensuring for the care of an aging cemetery system. This not only stabilized that diocese’s funeral and cemetery programs but led to a sizable surplus to subsidize other important ministries. End-of-life pro

Over the past year, our nation has lost hundreds of thousands of souls to the pandemic that plunged our society into a crisis from which we are only now beginning to emerge. In a culture that traditionally relegates the topic of death to whispered, private conversation, we have been forced to confront head-on the fragility of our lives this side of the Kingdom of God.

Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services fills the void left by a society keeping death at arm’s length. This Church-owned nonprofit was established to walk with every Catholic through the experience of an end-of-life journey, fusing sound business and management principles with a concerted effort to unleash a renewed Catholic vitality, re-evangelizing Catholics about the hope and beauty found in the theology of Catholic end-of-life rites.

Death has been a source of both anxiety and fascination for humanity since the fall of our first parents in the Garden of Eden. Indeed, many find death to be a frightening prospect and spend their lives in search of distractions from its unrelenting finality. The Catholic response, however, has long been to emphasize death as a passage to eternal salvation. Catholic funeral rites, which are composed of the Vigil, the Funeral Liturgy, and the Committal, are designed to imitate and reflect the Christian hope that, in death, we find eternal life with our heavenly father.

“From beginning to end, a funeral evangelizes us, sharing the good news that God is near and that even in our sorrow, difficulties and distress, we can have joyful confidence in his providence,” Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron wrote in his 2018 pastoral note, An Act of Mercy and Faith. “On our end, through participating in the funeral liturgies, we proclaim to those who have little or no faith, or who do not practice it, the good news that God is mercy. We proclaim through our actions that we are certain that our loved ones are not memories, but that they are alive, they will arise and live for all eternity.”

Every detail of the rites is designed to remind those participating of their loved one’s eternal life. The coffin, for example, is clothed with the white pall, a reminder of our baptismal garment and the mark of eternal life. The sprinkling of holy water symbolizes our reverence for a body that will rise to meet its Savior on the last day. Far from a series of bleak gestures, the Catholic funeral rites are, to quote Pope Francis, “an act of great faith.”

They are also acts that fewer and fewer Catholics experience. With a culture ever more focused on clinging to youthful vitality, people today are less prepared to confront the reality of death, in particular the immediate need for a final resting place for the body. Further, the faithful increasingly view traditional end-of-life rites as exceedingly elaborate and overly costly. Shifting preferences and demographics, mounting costs, and an increase in secular competition have given rise to a dramatic shift toward cremation, with many opting to keep or scatter the cremated remains of their loved ones.

Whereas the 1950s saw a booming demand for cemetery plots, the cremation rate today in most parishes averages about 40 percent, with some dioceses seeing cremation rates as high as 75 percent. The 15 years between 2000 and 2015 saw a 30 percent drop in Catholic casketed services and a more than 200 percent rise in Catholic cremation services. And while the Church does not expressly prohibit cremation, its rise in popularity prompted the Vatican recently to reiterate its requirement that cremated remains be buried on sacred ground. Changing behaviors present new opportunities for the Church to reach people.

Amid the ongoing pandemic, it becomes immeasurably more important to accompany the faithful — devout or otherwise — through one of life’s most painful moments. Taking its cue from Pope Francis, CFCS works to evangelize the faithful using the beauty and meaning of Catholic end-of-life rites, which emphasize that the bodies of our dead are not keepsakes for the living, but rather remain temples for the Almighty in the next life. 

Those evangelization efforts are amplified by the application of financial acumen to run diocesan funeral and cemetery programs like a business primed for success. For instance, principles like the 80/20 rule help the typical cash poor but land rich diocese better leverage its assets. CFCS also employs a two-pronged approach of running diocesan cemetery programs like a start-up while using fine-tuned messaging and business savvy, which has taken funeral and cemetery operations from the red to the green in every single diocese where CFCS has been used, without reliance upon perpetual care funds that should be carefully guarded.

CFCS has established a 6 percent annual growth rate in the Oakland, Calif., diocese, for example, increasing available equity by $24 million and ensuring for the care of an aging cemetery system. This not only stabilized that diocese’s funeral and cemetery programs but led to a sizable surplus to subsidize other important ministries. End-of-life programs are now becoming financial lifelines for ministries and programs supporting school children and families.

Perhaps more significantly, CFCS found a model that might serve the Church’s many noble nonprofit initiatives seeking to share and educate on foundational Catholic theology. In the Detroit archdiocese, CFCS programs are integrated in support of the region’s overarching mission to “Unleash the Gospel.” Departments and resources that were once siloed are now integrated and mutually supportive. 

Pope Francis once warned that “if the Church is not on the move, she decays, she becomes something else.” CFCS took the principle of “innovate or die” to the changing business of death, giving it a new life of its own and helping to shed the light of Christ on the specter of death so that the bereaved and all the faithful may see it clearly for what it is: the passage to eternal salvation with Christ. 

Robert Seelig is the CEO of Catholic Funeral & Cemetery Services and Fr. Jeffrey Day is the Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, Archdiocese of Detroit.


grams are now becoming financial lifelines for ministries and programs supporting school children and families.

Perhaps more significantly, CFCS found a model that might serve the Church’s many noble nonprofit initiatives seeking to share and educate on foundational Catholic theology. In the Detroit archdiocese, CFCS programs are integrated in support of the region’s overarching mission to “Unleash the Gospel.” Departments and resources that were once siloed are now integrated and mutually supportive. 

Pope Francis once warned that “if the Church is not on the move, she decays, she becomes something else.” CFCS took the principle of “innovate or die” to the changing business of death, giving it a new life of its own and helping to shed the light of Christ on the specter of death so that the bereaved and all the faithful may see it clearly for what it is: the passage to eternal salvation with Christ. 

Robert Seelig is the CEO of Catholic Funeral & Cemetery Services and Fr. Jeffrey Day is the Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, Archdiocese of Detroit.

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