John Cherek is the Director of The Catholic Cemeteries which maintains five locations in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota: Resurrection Cemetery in Mendota Heights, Calvary Cemetery in St. Paul, Gethsemane Cemetery in New Hope, St. Anthony’s Cemetery in Minneapolis, and St. Mary’s Cemetery in Minneapolis. In April, I visited Resurrection Cemetery as part of my quest to learn from and pay respect to poet John Berryman who is buried in this cemetery. I had the pleasure of meeting John Cherek at this time when he graciously assisted me in locating John Berryman’s grave site though the cemetery office was closed. Cherek has been the Director of The Catholic Cemeteries for twenty-five years and has worked for the Catholic Church in various positions since 1973. He is a Certified Catholic Cemetery Executive and is a leader in local, state, and national organizations related to cemetery management.
PY: I was looking at the website for Resurrection Cemetery, one of the five cemeteries maintained by The Catholic Cemeteries. I noticed many different ways people can come to pay respects and remember loved ones beyond gravestone markers. Can you talk about some of the ways people use your cemeteries as a place of remembrance?
JC: As a place of prayer and remembrance, people use our cemeteries as individuals, as families, and as members of a community, in our case, a Catholic Christian community. Individuals come to visit a burial space as a way of connecting, in a new way, with the deceased loved one. Individuals may leave flowers or mementos, may trim around the granite memorials as if tidying up for their loved ones, or may simply sit or stand in quiet reflection at the site. Families will gather at special times, like a death anniversary, at the site and tell stories, maybe share food or drink, or pray the rosary. The cemetery also provides religious opportunities for the community of grievers to gather together for Mass or prayer service of remembrance where the names of the dead are read aloud.
Individuals and families may choose, in addition to placing a monument or marker on the site, to purchase a tree in memory of their loved one, or have the name of the loved one inscribed on a paving stone in a cemetery garden or a remembrance wall, or make a donation to our Compassionate Assistance Fund for the burial of the poor. The cemetery is a sacred space where people can remember their loved ones in a permanent and lasting setting—where their story can be told time and time again.
PY: My mother is very involved in genealogy and building our family’s tree. One of the items she includes on each leaf of the tree, representing a deceased person, is a photograph of his or her gravestone. Do you find you have a lot of people searching for ancestors?
JC: The simple answer is yes! Genealogy, as a hobby, has grown tremendously over the past several years. We find that a significant number of people contact our cemetery offices either in person or via email requesting information about their families. This is especially true in our older cemeteries, which have been open for more than a hundred years. The information we provide them includes the person’s date of burial, age, and location in the cemetery. If they are buried with other family members, the information about those members is available as well. However, we do not have other items such as death certificates or obituaries on file in our offices.
PY: Walking through cemeteries, one can’t help being drawn to the beauty of some of the stones. What kind of maintenance goes into the upkeep of a cemetery? What goes into the preservation and maintenance of the stones?
JC: Cemeteries of all sizes are like little cities with an infrastructure above and belowground. Underground there is usually a water system providing water for visitors’ use as well as for irrigation purposes of the cemetery grounds. Over the past fifty years or so, most cemeteries have required an outer burial container, or vault, to house a casket or urn in order to prevent the ground from sinking. In historic cemeteries or older sections in cemeteries, where vaults were not used, ground sinkage can become a major maintenance issue. Aboveground there is grass to be mowed, grave markers and monuments to be trimmed, trees to be trimmed, new graves to seed or sod, and roads to be plowed in the wintertime or seal-coated in the growing season. The positive aesthetic quality of cemetery grounds is generally not maintained by accident!
Maintenance of stonework in a cemetery is even trickier in that all memorials, whether ground-level markers or aboveground monuments (tombstones) are considered personal property of the lot owner. The cemetery tries to maintain the ground around the memorials, though, as you can attest in trying to find the marker of John Berryman, the task can be almost insurmountable in larger cemeteries. Markers can sink into the ground and become overgrown as time progresses. When families are actively visiting graves, many times they will trim around the memorials or wash down the stone. However, as family visitation diminishes or ceases, care of the stonework may become problematic. Foundations may deteriorate or break apart, causing the monument to tip; in those cases, if no family remains, the cemetery may have to act proactively and restore the foundation for safety reasons. Softer stones like limestone or marble may crack apart and may need to be placed in the ground, again for safety purposes. Like all situations in our society, the level of financial resources available may determine the level of care provided to cemetery memorials.
PY: Do people typically use the office staff at the cemetery to help them find gravestones? Do you have section markers in the cemetery or maps with plot locations?
JC: Depending on the size of a cemetery, a cemetery office staff may be present to assist visitors in locating graves. In smaller cemeteries, which are in the majority in most places, an on-site office facility may not be available. Most cemeteries have some type of section identification system which correlates to a map. Again, in smaller cemeteries, access to this information may be more difficult to find. On the other hand, many cemeteries or allied services have computerized their cemetery data and may have it available online. As your experience at our Resurrection Cemetery will once again attest, having a map and a specific grave or lot identification does not always determine success in finding a grave!
PY: As a director of cemeteries, what do you find is the most difficult part of your job? The most rewarding?
JC: This a tough question. The biggest challenge facing my cemeteries, as well as all cemeteries, is our ability to convince the public of the value of burial in a cemetery. This is due to the growth in cremation in North America. Cremation, because the law considers it final disposition of the body, affords people the option to do whatever they want with the cremated remains. In a recent nationwide survey, fewer than 50% of respondents choosing cremation at the time of death indicated a preference for burial of the cremated remains in a cemetery. That is a foreboding statistic for most cemeterians; conversely, it heightens the challenge and the creativity needed to meet the challenge. Given that context, the most rewarding aspect of my job is building relationships with families so that the remains of their loved ones are interred in a respectful and dignified manner and that the fact of their loved one’s existence will be permanently and publicly acknowledged in a beautiful place.
PY: What is something you think people should know about cemeteries? Maybe something that isn’t common knowledge?
JC: Cemeteries are not ghoulish or dark places to be avoided. Cemeteries are institutions in a society which need to be preserved for future generations. Cemeteries are wonderful places to connect with a person’s heritage, to acknowledge our own mortality, and to enjoy quietude and reflection on the value of life in a crazy world. They are great places to find a treasure trove of memories and sometimes our forgotten ancestors.
PY: Lastly, I want to personally thank you for helping me to find the gravestone of poet John Berryman. I had come from Connecticut on a kind of pilgrimage, and finding his grave marked the end of a long journey for me. I appreciate the time you took to help me, especially since it ended up being a bit of a searching adventure! Related to this, I’m curious if you have other famous people buried in your cemetery?
JC: The most famous person buried at Resurrection Cemetery is James J. Hill. You might not recognize his name but he founded the Great Northern Railroad, which became the primary land connection to the West Coast. Most recently, Vince Flynn, an author of contemporary thrillers, was interred here. In our other cemeteries, we have local or regional historic notables, including politicians, architects, gangsters, military heroes, early Catholic church bishops, priests, and religious sisters. Much of the history of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis is expressed in the stonework of our cemeteries.
Poor Yorick Associate Editor