The use of lights has its origin as burials in the early Church took place at night. This was necessary because of the secrecy demanded during times of persecution. One of the most interesting and edifying customs has to do with the asking of prayers. In the very earliest days the names of the dead were sent from Church to Church, usually being read during the Mass by the deacon. This is the origin of memorial cards, which today are distributed by the family or friends of the deceased. Saint John Chrysostom provided the authority for the belief that the custom was ordained by the Apostles.
In former times a corpse was exposed in the Church for one, two, or three days. The faithful spent the night in prayer nearby. This service was called the “vigil”. Masses for the departed were said during this time. The burial Mass was called the Mass of Requiem. A Mass on the third day after the burial commemorated the Resurrection of Christ on the third day. The seven-day Mass was mindful of the rest the Creator took on the seventh day and, in the same manner, the rest of the deceased from earthly toil. The thirty-day Mass, or Month’s Mind, commemorated the thirty days of mourning by the Israelites over the deaths of Moses and Aaron.
Another interesting practice is that of placing the bodies in the ground in such a manner that they face towards the east. While this practice is not necessarily enjoined by the Church and is no longer followed, its origin is another indication of the Church’s adherence to appropriate symbolism. The sun, rising in the east, is the physical light of the world and is a symbol of the Resurrection. When bodies are facing the east, it signifies that the deceased places his hope in Christ who is the light of the soul. In a similar manner, Churches were once built with their altars facing the east. When individuals were buried in the Church, the face of the deceased was turned toward the altar, therefore toward the east. The bodies of the clergy were reversed, since during life they were turned from the altar toward the people.
While the manner of Christian burial has necessarily undergone some changes, it remains fundamentally the same, being established by definite teachings on redemption and eternal life. From time to time the Church has found it necessary to remind the faithful of the sacred character of Catholic burial customs and services. The demands of the Church are based upon teachings, which make it clear that burial in a Catholic cemetery was not only a holy privilege, but also a requirement which was dispensed with only in exceptional cases. The members of the Church, living and dead, are a part of the body of the same Church, united by a common head, Jesus Christ, into a confraternity which is without limit of time. The cemetery is a sacred place because it holds the relics of many who are already enjoying the Beatific Vision. It is a sure link between heaven and earth, between time and eternity.
Consequently, the Church makes definite regulations which are born of love rather than stringency. The burial plot is one of the focal points of Catholic devotion, but it is also, in a worldly sense, a place of much historical interest. The chapters which follow will attempt to tell briefly the story of some of Cleveland’s Catholic burial places. They will recall the story of the Church’s solicitnoll for Her dead, and to make clear the reasonableness of Catholic demands regarding certain practices and what may be termed “Catholic privacy” in maintaining her own places of burial. The history of local Catholic cemeteries is bound up with the history of the Diocese of Cleveland, and as such should prove of interest that is fraternal and Christian rather than simply academic.