The following comes from a June 3 Catholic San Francisco article by Christina Gray:
On the occasions when Catholic remains would arrive to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma for burial without an accompanying member of clergy – or sometimes without anyone at all – the cemetery’s longtime director would grab her own prayer book and offer the prayers of committal at the burial site.
“I brought the urn to the grave and said the committal prayers myself, along with one of our gravediggers,” said Monica Williams, who oversees all six archdiocesan Catholic cemeteries. She was describing the recent burial of an indigent man with no family except a brother too ill to travel to the cemetery.
Sadly, Williams told Catholic San Francisco, remains arriving to the cemetery without family members, friends or clergy to attend the committal – the third and final part of the Rite of Christian Burial – have increased over the years. The rite includes the vigil, the funeral and at burial, the committal.
“I was heartbroken to think that were people being buried in our own cemeteries without the prayers of the Church being said and without another Christian there as they were laid to rest,” said Laura Bertone, director of the archdiocese’s office of worship. Williams had turned to Bertone earlier in the year to address the trend and together they came up with a plan to ensure that no one would ever be buried without the witness of other Christians or completion of the full rite: a lay committal ministry.
“The Rite of Christian Burial is so beautifully written by the Church,” Bertone said. “The deceased passes with the farewell prayers of the community of believers into the welcoming company of those who need faith no longer but see God face to face,” she said.
Bertone and Williams agreed that the problem presented a wonderful opportunity to lay people to serve their fellow Christians. The Church itself allows for lay people to preside at the committal.
“The Rites specifically say that in the absence of a parish minister, a friend or member of the family should lead those present in the rite of committal,” Bertone said.
In April, 28 deacons and lay people from local parishes took part in a daylong training at Holy Cross Cemetery led by Mercy Sister Toni Lynn Gallagher, the ministry of consolation coordinator for the archdiocese, along with Bertone and Williams. The training prepares lay people to officiate at burials when a group arrives without a member of clergy or when unaccompanied remains are delivered to the cemetery.
Williams said that church needs to do a better job of educating people about the richness of Catholic traditions and the values of its rites, and she hopes the new ministry can help in this way.
“A Christian burial can be a tremendous moment of evangelization, in some cases an introduction our faith for visitors,” Williams said. “In other cases, it’s a reminder to those who have drifted away from the Church of the ministry we offer and the great hope of our faith.”