Ashes to ashes in the church grounds

ll of eternity is a pretty long time to be unhappy with the final disposition of your remains. Lynnhurst resident Marlys Weber plans to make her forever a peaceful one by ensuring that her cremated remains are kept at her spiritual home, St. Joan of Arc, in a new memorial garden she's proposed for the Catholic church.

Weber has submitted a proposal to hold the cremated remains - sometimes known as cremains - of 6,000 people on the grounds of St. Joan's, 4537 3rd Ave. S. If the archbishop of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese approves, the garden will be the first of its kind at a Catholic church in the upper Midwest, St. Joan's Pastor George Wertin said.

Weber said she's been going to the church since 1968 and that she doesn't want to leave it behind when she dies. St. Joan's, she said, is "a very joyful and loving community. Once attached here, it's like it becomes really deep in your bones. That's why we want our bones to be here."

She said if plans for the garden - which is, in essence, a cemetery - are approved, landscaping would begin as soon as possible on the church's north side and would be completed this fall.

Afterwards, there will be four sections in the garden, each capable of holding 1,500 cremains in biodegradable containers. Weber said the church would offer at least three types of containers: biodegradable plastic, cloth, and a wood or birch bark cylinder.

She said that she and the eight other committee members who will work out the memorial garden's details wanted to make sure that the burial of cremains would be environmentally friendly.

She said the timeworn phrase from the burial service in the "Book of Common Prayer" - "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" - applies quite literally to the proposed St. Joan memorial garden.

John Cherek, the archdiocese's director of Catholic cemeteries, said it isn't clear yet whether the Church will embrace the idea of biodegradable containers.

Though Archbishop Harry Flynn has yet to rule, Cherek said it's possible that the containers will conflict with Church doctrine that a person's cremains remain whole. That is, the integrity of the ashes - which, Cherek said, are really pulverized bone fragments - must be preserved. He said it's possible the Church won't allow containers designed to facilitate the mingling of earth and remains.

Said Cherek, "It goes back to the whole concept of the sacredness of the body and maintaining its integrity. In other words, we wouldn't take a body, a full body that's died, and cut it up into pieces and distribute it to people. We want to maintain the same degree of respect for the cremated remains of the body."

He acknowledged that even a body buried in a metal casket placed in a sealed concrete vault eventually will disintegrate, as will the protective containers, all to be absorbed into the earth.

The plots

Weber said each burial plot would be a 14-inch square. The first layer of burials will be at 36 inches deep. After all the plots at that depth are filled, a new layer will be started a foot higher. After that layer is filled, the third and last one will be interred at 12 inches deep.

Weber said it would take awhile to fill all of the plots three times over. She said that about 25 members of St. Joan's die each year. At that rate, it would take 240 years to fill the memorial garden.

She said the first cremains are ready to be interred as soon as the garden is finished. A woman whose husband died last year has indicated that she'd like his remains there.

Weber said former Pastor Harvey Eagan is also ready to become part of the ashes and dust at St. Joan's when his time comes.

So is Mary Eve Thomas, Weber's friend and a fellow memorial garden committee member.

Said Thomas, "This is our spiritual home. We're fed here. We're very involved here. We want to be part of it when we're gone as well. Just be part of that whole community, the living and the dead."

Thomas said that she wouldn't have a traditional burial, regardless of whether a cemetery for cremains is established at St. Joan's.

"I find it abhorrent, totally repugnant, to spend the kind of money to get into a casket with satin-lined pillows and the whole thing, and then you sink it into the ground and there you are. I don't know many eons have to pass before you get out of there. It sounds so macabre to me that I can't stand the thought of it," she said. "If I picture myself in the ground in that way, it makes me want to scream. I feel that strongly about it."

Cremation trends

Cherek said the increasing popularity of cremation among Catholics reflects an increasing popularity in the general population. He said about 22 percent of Catholics now choose cremation over traditional burial, while in Hennepin County, 40 percent of the general population makes such a selection.

He said the difference in the figures might be explained by the Church's longtime reluctance to allow cremation. The Church lifted its prohibition on the practice in 1963. Since then, the numbers of Catholics choosing it as an alternative to traditional burial has been slowly increasing.

Cherek said that choosing cremation could have pitfalls, however. "After remains are scattered, people are sometimes regretful," he said.

Families often don't have a place like a cemetery to go and visit and reflect on the life and loss of their loved one. He said he has seen people come to cemeteries asking for a place to put a headstone after scattering a family member to the winds.

The desire to scatter cremains is, he said, "part of our societal movement toward individualization and disconnection from the community.

"When you take away the element of community or connection to community, there's not a whole lot left in terms of remembering."

Weber said she hopes to help the sense of community at St. Joan's pass from this life to the next. She said that people who have lost friends and family would be able to come to St. Joan's and enjoy their memories in the garden she began planning six years ago.

Back then, the church rejected her idea, but she has quietly proceeded to persevere.

Now she's confident that the archbishop will approve her plans.

"There's no good reason for him not to," she said.

She said the cost of the memorial garden is estimated at between $38,000 and $55,000.

Part of that cost would be borne by the $500 burial fee. Weber said 20 percent to 25 percent of that fee would be applied to perpetual care costs.

The rest, she said, would come from donors in the church.

"People are so generous here, I think there will be people here who will want to give."

Thomas agreed that money wouldn't be a stumbling block to completing the garden.

Said Weber, "I feel like I've been drawn to do this. It's something I cannot not do. It's time. It's a project that's good for St. Joan's and good for all of us."