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.
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.