Sacred even in death

George Zanas places his mother's ashes in a niche at Holyrood Cemetery as Father Jay DeFolco looks on. Photo: Courtesy George Zanas George Zanas places his mother's ashes in a niche at Holyrood Cemetery as Father Jay DeFolco looks on. Photo: Courtesy George Zanas
As temples of the Spirit, Catholics — cremated or not — should be laid to rest in a sacred place

For 21 years after her death, the ashes of Helene Elizabeth Sally held a place of honor in the home of her son and daughter-in-law. A decorative ceramic container holding her remains sat on their dresser, alongside a photo of a deceased uncle and other memorable items.

Then, several months ago, George and Darlene Zanas saw something that changed their view of that arrangement: a full-page advertisement in Northwest Catholic explaining the church’s teaching about cremated remains.

“What prompted us to get going, really, was reading the back page of the magazine,” George said of the ad placed by the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Associated Catholic Cemeteries.

After seeing the ad in more than one issue, reading it multiple times and discussing it, he and Darlene realized it wasn’t proper to keep his mother’s remains at home any longer, George said. And there was the uncertainty about what would happen to his mother’s ashes when George and Darlene passed on.

So in June, the couple — members of St. Michael Parish in Snohomish — began working with the archdiocese’s Holyrood Cemetery in Shoreline to find just the right spot for Helene’s final resting place. On Aug. 23, during a Catholic committal service, George placed the ceramic container with his mother’s remains into the niche that he and Darlene had so carefully chosen.

“It feels so much better that she’s in a place that she should be, not sitting on our dresser,” George said. “It makes us feel good about her. She would have liked this.”

‘We don’t just disintegrate into the ether’

In October 2016, when the Vatican released To Rise with Christ, its instruction about burial and cremation, many Catholics thought the church was saying something new.

But basic church teaching hasn’t changed: “Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places,” the instruction reads. “In memory of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord, the mystery that illumines the Christian meaning of death, burial is above all the most fitting way to express faith and hope in the resurrection of the body.”

Although burial is preferred, the church has allowed cremation since 1963 — as long as it’s not chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine. The church prefers the body to be present at the funeral Mass, with cremation afterward.

As cremations have become more commonplace in the U.S. (studies show about 50 percent of people who die are cremated; it’s more than 75 percent in Washington state), many Catholics may not know what the church says about the proper disposition of cremated remains.

“The starting point of all this is the great honor and esteem that the church holds [for] the body,” created in the image and likeness of God, said Father Jim Johnson, pastor of St. Jude Parish in Redmond. “When we are brought to the church for baptism, our body is marked with the sign of the cross by the priest, the parents and godparents. It’s washed in the waters of baptism. It’s anointed with sacred chrism at baptism and confirmation. The body is an essential part of who we are.”

To Rise with Christ reiterates what has been found in the Order of Christian Funerals for many years: A Catholic’s cremated remains must be laid to rest in a cemetery or other sacred place — not scattered, kept at home, divided among family members or made into jewelry.

“In the Apostles’ Creed we profess our faith in the resurrection of the body,” Father Johnson said. “We as Catholics believe we don’t just disintegrate into the ether, becoming one with the universe; we maintain our God-given identity in resurrection.”

Since the Vatican instruction was published a year ago, Father Johnson said, a number of people in his parish who kept ashes of loved ones at home have brought them for burial. “I think that’s a fruitful, good thing.”

The church points out that interring the body or ashes in a sacred place ensures the deceased’s remains will always be treated with respect. And interment encourages not just the family, but the whole Christian community, to pray for and remember the dead, the Vatican instruction says.

“It’s not about me, the individual, it’s about us, the community of the faithful,” said Richard Peterson, the archdiocese’s director of cemeteries. “We’re all in it together. We’re one people of God.”

Helene Sally cemeteryGeorge and Darlene Zanas and their children in front of Helene Sally's final resting place. Photo: Courtesy George Zanas

‘Beautiful sign of our faith’

The church’s rites fall into three parts: the vigil service (where eulogies are appropriate), the funeral Mass/liturgy and the rite of committal (see box for more details). These rites are intended to “offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now been returned to God,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“I want to encourage people to take advantage of the Catholic funeral rites,” Father Johnson said. “They’re a very beautiful sign of our faith” and the promise of resurrection.

Tom Raabe, who has been helping families plan funerals as a member of the Lazarus Ministry at Issaquah’s St. Joseph Parish for nearly three years, is working on a parish brochure to better help families understand the church’s teachings. “All sorts of questions come up,” he said. “We try to guide them as pastorally as we can. When the plans aren’t solidly within the Vatican teachings, we take the opportunity to explain what they are.”

It’s preferred that Catholics be laid to rest in a Catholic cemetery, “a place that witnesses the shared faith of our Catholic community,” according to the archdiocese’s Christian Funeral Rites.

“The archbishop has charged us with ensuring that people get authentic Catholic education about Catholic funeral rites and burial,” said Peterson, the cemeteries director. Thinking about and planning for death can be difficult, he said, even though every Sunday at Mass “we say … we look forward to the resurrection. But we avoid the heck out of it.”

Burial in a Catholic cemetery is “a beacon of hope, not for today, not for tomorrow, but for generations and generations,” Peterson said.

Properly laid to rest

When George Zanas’ mother, Helene, died in 1996 at age 87, he and Darlene weren’t sure what to do about laying her to rest.

In the early 1970s, Helene had moved from New York to Everett, where she attended Immaculate Conception Parish and enjoyed playing bingo there, George noted. But near the end of her life, she moved into a care facility next to St. Michael Church in Snohomish.

Since Helene wasn’t connected to Immaculate Conception any more, and only a few friends lived locally, the couple had a ceremony at home with their three kids. “We basically prayed and said a few things and that was it,” George said.

Helene’s ashes spent the next 21 years on the couple’s dresser, until they saw that ad and took steps to have her interred at Holyrood.

“The folks at Holyrood treated us great from the first visit,” George said. He and Darlene even picked out a niche for themselves next to Helene’s — making plans now so that their kids won’t have to face those decisions.

Today, Helene’s photo occupies the place of honor on the dresser where her ashes sat for all those years. “It doesn’t seem right to us anymore that we did it that way,” George said. “Now we feel like we’ve done it in the proper way.”


Vigil Service

The vigil often occurs during the period of visitation and viewing at a funeral home, but can also be at a church. It’s a time to remember the life of the deceased, commend the person to God and pray for consolation and strength to support one another. Eulogies or other sharing of memories are encouraged.

Funeral Liturgy

The funeral Mass is the central liturgical celebration of the Christian community for the deceased — an act of worship, not merely an expression of grief. Family and friends gather to give thanks for Christ’s victory over sin and death, commend the deceased to God’s mercy and seek strength in the proclamation of the Paschal Mystery. When a Mass isn’t possible, a funeral liturgy outside of Mass can be celebrated at a church or funeral home.

Rite of Committal

During the committal rite, the community of faith expresses the hope that the deceased awaits the glory of the resurrection. Normally celebrated at the gravesite or place of interment, the rite is an expression of the communion between the church on earth and the church in heaven.

Source: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops


What if I've already divided or scattered my loved one's ashes?

You can still inter or memorialize your loved one at a Catholic cemetery, whether you have intact ashes, partial ashes or no ashes at all. Learn more at

If someone's ashes are going to be scattered, does that mean they can't have a Catholic funeral?

Only if "the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith," according to the Vatican instruction (emphasis added). Before making any decisions, talk with your pastor.

Northwest Catholic - November 2017

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at