The Business of Catholic Cemeteries

By Gallagher, Tom | National Catholic Reporter, October 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Business of Catholic Cemeteries


Gallagher, Tom, National Catholic Reporter


The bucolic setting of a cemetery belies the intense challenge to operate such an enterprise. This is most certainly the case for Catholic cemeteries. Like other Catholic organizations, Catholic cemeteries struggle with their mission and their management.

Why do we need Catholic cemeteries? And how do Catholic cemeteries fit in to the life of the church?

"Catholic cemeteries are an extension of the church," says Holy Cross Fr. Richard Rutherford, professor of theology at the University of Portland, Ore., and author of the definitive The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals. "Every cemetery is a witness to the Christian faith and reminds us that death does not have the last word."

"Catholic cemeteries provide ministries of comfort, catechesis and evangelization," said Joseph Sankovich, former director of cemeteries for the Seattle archdiocese and a consultant to some 40 dioceses on Catholic cemeteries.

Catholic cemeteries are owned and operated by both dioceses and parishes. "There are some 6,000 parish cemeteries in the United States and 130-140 dioceses are engaged in managing cemeteries," said Sankovich.

"From a business perspective, I advocate that dioceses and parishes employ eight management disciplines in their operations," he said. The eight disciplines focus on management, pastoral and public relations, operations and maintenance, inventory and development, office operations, human resources/personnel, sales, and accounting and finance.

John Cherek is director of the Catholic Cemeteries of St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese. He oversees a $5 million annual budget and a staff of 25, many of whom are union members. He manages five cemeteries for this corporation, which is legally separate from the archdiocese though controlled by the archbishop, who is chair and appoints the board members. An estimated 250,000 bodies are buried in their cemeteries. In the archdiocese are 110 parish cemeteries that Cherek does not manage.

Cherek says, "We're fighting a battle to survive as much as Catholic schools and hospitals."

In 2007, there were 2.4 million deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet people are living longer and the annual mortality rate is steady-to-decreasing.

"We have about 1,200 to 1,300 burials per year and that is down from 1,600 to 1,700 burials about five years ago," Cherek said.

Another significant impact on the cemetery business is the growing prevalence of cremation.

In 2000, cremation was chosen 26 percent of the time and in 2010, is projected to be 46 percent, according to the Cremation Association of North America. The association's surveys show that Catholics choose cremation 30 percent of the time. By 2025, the association predicts that the cremation rate will be close to 60 percent. …

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