Mt. Olivet cemetery offers spiritual, corporal works of mercy

On Hart Island in the Long Island Sound of New York City, more than one million unclaimed people’s remains are buried. It is the largest tax funded cemetery in the world.

The city’s Department of Corrections maintains and operates the island, and its prisoners bury the anonymous bodies. Visitors are welcome just once a month.

It’s examples like Hart Island that motivate Al Hooper and John Miller at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery to take even greater care of the unclaimed after they pass away.

“We’re an extension of the arm of the archbishop, doing the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead and the spiritual work of praying for the dead,” said Miller, Outreach Coordinator for the Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services of northern Colorado.

… it’s safe to say that at least in the Denver metro area, we’re the only cemetery that will take indigent persons — most of the time for free”

That’s why if the county reaches out to Mount Olivet in Denver when they have a homeless person with no known family who passed away, the cemetery buries them at little to no charge.

“I think it’s safe to say that at least in the Denver metro area, we’re the only cemetery that will take indigent persons — most of the time for free,” said Miller.

Not only does the cemetery accept the unknown, but it also houses a Crypt of All Souls, located inside a mausoleum, that offers reserved crypt space for families who cannot afford a burial plot. The cemetery places the cremated remains within the crypt at little to no cost.

“For me, this is hope,” said Hooper, Director of the Office of Social Ministry for the archdiocese. “This is what the faith is about. What do we need Easter for if it isn’t this?

“It’s just wonderfully hopeful,” he said.

Mount Olivet offers Mass each first Friday of the month in the mortuary chapel. Some families have attended the Mass for years, said Miller.

“It’s just one of the spiritual works of mercy that happens [here],” he said.

For Hooper, the merciful services offered through Denver’s Catholic cemeteries show “how healing a church’s understanding about death is for those that are grieving,” he said.

Mt. Olivet Cemetery offers full cemetery services, including standard casket and cremated ground burials and above ground crypts. Mass is also offered on the first Friday of each month at the Archdiocese of Denver Mortuary Chapel on the grounds of Mt. Olivet for those souls buried at the cemetery. (Photo by Andrew Wright/Denver Catholic)

It reminds Hooper how fortunate Catholics are to have the Mass to feel connected to their loved ones who have passed away.

“If you really want people to go back to Mass, connect with your deceased at the Mass together,” said Hooper. “As Scott Hahn said, this is where heaven and earth come together — they transcend time and dimension.”

Because we are able to worship God during Mass with the entire Communion of Saints, and it’s there that we pray together for both the living and the deceased, it’s important to celebrate the Church’s liturgy for funerals, said Miller. The liturgy includes a vigil, funeral Mass and committal.

“Each step along the way, each liturgy, prays for the deceased,” said Miller. “And it prays for all the dead, but also the living and consolation in their grief and their sorrow.

“The liturgy itself in my opinion brings healing and closure, especially if it’s done complete,” he said. “The funeral Mass is offered for the deceased, we’re offering our prayers in the greatest miracle of the sacrifice of the Mass in the Eucharist.

“To deprive the deceased of that is [unfair],” he said. “The Church has, in her wisdom and pastoral care of the people of God, this beautiful liturgy to help them in their grief and suffering.”

Both Hooper and Miller hope the services offered through Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services bring healing to those who need it.

“I want to make this very healthy and healing,” said Hooper. “It’s the hope of the whole Christian faith.”

For more information on Denver’s Catholic cemeteries, visit cfcscolorado.org.

COMING UP: Saints, holy figures come back to life at first ‘Night in the Cemetery’

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The week before Halloween, the dead rose from the graves at Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

It was much less frightening than a scene from Night of the Living Dead, though. Among those who appeared were St. Therese of Lisieux, Freddie Joe Steinmark and Denver’s very own angel of charity Julia Greeley, all portrayed by actors and actresses. Youth from around the archdiocese were given the chance to walk through the cemetery in the dark of night for the very first “Night in the Cemetery” event.

“If you get [kids] the week before Halloween to come and walk around a cemetery at night, they’re all ears,” said Gary Schaaf, director of Mt. Olivet. “We’re not trying to scare them, but we do understand they’ll be in a different place than when they’re playing Xbox. They’ll be thinking, they’ll be listening, their senses are heightened.”

Actors and actresses from the Regis Ramblers, Regis University’s drama club, portrayed some of the religious figures students encountered during the tour, such as St. Therese of Lisieux pictured above. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

For three nights, middle school and high school youth groups were led on a two-hour tour through Mt. Olivet, learning about some of its rich history and encountering a few saints and other special visitors portrayed in part by members of the Regis University drama club. They were also treated to an outdoor Mass at Gallagher Chapel in the heart of the cemetery.

The first character the students encountered on their tour was Julia Greeley, who was buried at Mt. Olivet for nearly 100 years until recently, when her cause for canonization as Denver’s first saint was opened. As part of the canonization process, her bones were exhumed and now lie at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

The woman who portrayed Julia, Robin Weldon, is currently a resident at the Julia Greeley Home, a homeless shelter for women in Denver. Even before being asked to play Julia, Weldon had read about her life and felt a kindred connection to her.

The tour ended with Mass at Gallagher Chapel in the heart of the cemetery. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

“We had a lot of things in common, without even knowing anything about her,” Weldon said. “Some of the things she has done as far as giving food…I have done that, unaware of her story.”

“It wasn’t hard for me to decide to do it,” she added excitedly.

Schaaf hopes “Night in the Cemetery” becomes an annual occasion. Every kid dreams of walking around a cemetery at night, and this is a great chance to allow them to do that while revealing some of the deeper tenets of the Catholic faith.

“This place is so much in so many ways. It’s sacred ground,” he said. “So many people’s loved ones are out here. It’s where they come and go to a different and deeper place. If you can get kids to swim in a little bit deeper water for five minutes, that’s a good thing. That’s the purpose behind it all.”