Burying the dead at the 'gate of heaven'

  • Written by Northwest Catholic
  • Published in NW Stories
Working in cemetery ministry has energized Richard Peterson's faith and relationship with God. Photo: Rowland Photography Working in cemetery ministry has energized Richard Peterson's faith and relationship with God. Photo: Rowland Photography

Richard Peterson has worked for the Archdiocese of Seattle’s cemeteries for 44 years, a career he began as a seasonal grounds worker while attending college seminary. He later was named superintendent of Gethsemane Cemetery in Federal Way and in 1991 was appointed Director of Cemeteries for the archdiocese. Peterson, president of the Catholic Cemetery Conference and an active member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Federal Way, answered some questions from Northwest Catholic about Catholic cemetery ministry.

How did you get started in cemetery ministry, and what has kept you involved all these years?

I began my career in cemetery ministry in our archdiocese in a very inauspicious way. In spring 1976, I was a freshman in college at St. Thomas Seminary in Kenmore. I believed that God was calling me to service in the church as a priest. My father died the previous summer, leaving my mother alone to raise my six younger brothers and sisters. Frankly, times were tough.

One afternoon Bill Heric (now Father Bill Heric) came into the seminary dining hall and said, “If anyone is looking for a job, Calvary Cemetery is looking for workers.” With the encouragement of Father Mike Ryan, who was vocation director at that time, I went to work at Calvary the following Saturday. What began as a summer job to earn some much-needed money for school and for my family became my vocation. Little did I know that the Lord’s calling for me to serve his church would be through cemetery ministry and not the priesthood.

Why are Catholic cemeteries important? How are they different from secular cemeteries?

All cemeteries are important. Every cemetery buries the dead, records lives lived and preserves the history of a given community. Catholic cemeteries are unique in that they best express what our faith community prays with conviction every time we recite our creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Our Catholic cemetery, just like our parish church, is a sacred place where our faith community gathers — the living and the dead — looking forward to resurrection. Our Catholic cemetery is the gate of heaven where we wait in joyful hope for the coming of the Lord and our resurrection — body and soul — like his own. The Catholic cemetery reflects the Lord’s promise to us. Yes, we come to the cemetery to remember those who have gone before us, but the Catholic cemetery is where we gather in communion looking forward to that which God has promised us.

What makes working at a Catholic cemetery a ministry and not just a job?

First and foremost, work at the Catholic cemetery is the work of the church — not the institution, but the people of God. It is life-giving because it expresses the tangible reality that death is real but that death is not the end. It also reaffirms the value and dignity of each human person as a child of God.

The ministry of the Catholic cemetery is not simply burying the dead and maintaining properties. Cemetery ministry entails being present to hurting people (love), catechizing the faithful about the promises of Christ (hope), and evangelizing the community (faith). In our secular and humanistic Northwest culture, the need for healing, catechesis and evangelization is great. Catholic cemeteries are a vital aspect of the work of the entire church as we extend the mission of our archbishop.

The archdiocese's Catholic cemeteries are places where grieving families are met with faith, hope and love.

How has cemetery ministry shaped your own faith and spirituality?

I have been truly blessed. Every day I have the privilege of working side by side with dedicated staff who serve people on the most difficult day of their lives, the death of someone who they love dearly. It is not easy. How does one respond to the young father who shared with me the final words of his 6-year-old son who was killed in a tragic accident: “Daddy, help me”? In moments such as those, I have struggled. But in the struggle, my conviction about God’s love for us all has grown deeper.

Through this ministry, I am personally energized in my faith and my relationship with God. The Mass is most important to me as we remember and give thanks for the life, death and resurrection of the Lord. I pray every day for those buried at our cemeteries, most especially those who no longer have anyone to pray for them. I know that death is not the end but the continuation of eternal life with God.

You’re developing a natural burial section at Gethsemane Cemetery. What makes it natural? How does it connect with Catholic teaching on respect for the human body and care of God’s creation?

“Natural burial” means preparation of the body without the use of chemicals and burial directly in the earth in a biodegradable coffin or shroud. It was the only form of burial available to most people for the majority of the Catholic Church’s history. Around our country, an increasing number of people are asking for this option to minimize their carbon footprint by being buried in a natural meadow environment. Natural burial reinforces the value of the body and its place in the church’s funeral rites.

The natural burial section planned at Gethsemane Cemetery will be the first one in a Catholic cemetery in Washington state. Bodies will be buried in biodegradable containers without embalming. Graves will be marked with fieldstones or engraved rocks. Native Northwest trees, grass and wildflowers have been chosen for eco-conservation to provide sustainability of the area for birds and wildlife. More information about this option will be available as the section is developed next year.