St. Augustine Catholic
Restoring Hope to Grieving Youth
At the Hour of Our Death
Profile: Father Tom Willis

in this issue... 
editor's notes
saint of the month
bishop's message
from the archives
in the know with Fr. Joe
theology 101
your marriage matters
parenting journey
spiritual fitness
parish profile
around the diocese
work life
last word
calendar of events

at the hour of our death:
at the hour of our death:

by Julie Conrey

It was not supposed to turn out this way. My mother was not supposed to die.

When she was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer in March 2004, the doctors said the state-of-the-art chemotherapy that had just been introduced into treatment modalities could possibly manage the tumors that littered her liver. And so, a month later, she and our family began what I can only now call a grueling eight-month purgatory, of sorts, with a variety of medications that among other things sapped her energy, turned her complexion ashen gray, thinned her hair and without reason caused the skin on her hands to split wide open and bleed.

A year later, and the week before Easter, all of us, including my now shell of a mother, knew she was going to die very soon. And so, the woman who could never turn down a trip to the mall, or a lunch outing, struggled out of bed with a lot of help, signed herself into hospice care and wrote her obituary.

And, with the help of her parish’s director of ministries, my father and I helped her plan her own funeral.

The business of life stands eerily still when a loved one is near death or dies. There are all sorts of decisions to be made, and they need to be looked at both from an emotional, religious and unfortunately, an economic standpoint. Our family was blessed, I guess, in that my mother chose the funeral home in which she wanted to be laid out, the lavender dress in which she wanted to be buried in, and even the songs she wanted sung at her funeral. All ten of her grandchildren took part in the funeral liturgy. Several years before, in what I thought of as a macabre moment for the pair, she and my father had chosen a plot behind a Carmelite Monastery on which to be buried. They had even chosen a monument for the grave.

Many, many times that is not the case, and individuals and families are thrust into a world very few of us want to face: planning at the time of death while in the midst of grief. It’s a world that all-too-often forces us to make decisions when we are at our most vulnerable.

Sister of St. Joseph Nicole Cayer, the director of Family Services for the Catholic Cemeteries Office of the Diocese of Saint Augustine, and Father Tim Lindenfelser, judicial vicar and director of Catholic Cemeteries, do the day-to-day nuts and bolts work of making funerals happen. They also help educate Catholics on the advantages of planning ahead for death, about the various choices families have in transitioning from this life to the next, and the costs involved.

“I encourage pre-planning,” said Sister Nicole. “It is a great help to the family. Sometimes one spouse pushes the other, which causes both to reflect upon the meaning of their life and death. It’s harder on everyone when the death has already occurred.”

Pre-planning can guarantee that one gets what one wants, and, as prices increase, can afford. San Lorenzo Cemetery in St. Augustine and St. Mary’s Cemetery in Korona, Fla., are the two Catholic cemeteries owned and operated by the diocese. Individuals and families can purchase plots beginning at $1,113. A cremation plot is $557. That’s not a misprint. To the surprise of many, cremation has been allowed in the Catholic Church since 1963.

“Cremation is an option for Catholics, but full body burial is preferred because of our belief in the bodily resurrection,” Sister Nicole said.

And while the deceased may want his or her ashes scattered on a favorite plot of land or a peaceful lake, or even mixed with another’s ashes, it is not allowed. “Each individual in their body is a gift from God whose dignity must be respected and protected in both life and death,” she said. The church mandates the ashes remain intact and be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. Catholics can be buried in any cemetery or at sea, but the church prefers Catholics be buried in a Catholic cemetery. Father Lindenfelser explains, “as members of the Body of Christ, Catholics gather as a family around the altar every week and so as a family we sleep together awaiting the trumpet to sound awakening us to eternal life.”

The diocese will only sell a right to burial to a Catholic, but once it’s purchased, any family member can be buried in it. So, say that a father purchases a plot for his family and one or several of the members of the family aren’t Catholic. They can be buried in the plot. “The Catholic Church wants to keep families together,” Sister Nicole said.

Monuments can also be purchased through the diocese. They range in price from $300 to the thousands of dollars, depending on what you want, she said.

Just how does one go about planning for a Catholic funeral? Consulting with a parish priest is the first step to take. “A priest can help you to hear Jesus’ comforting words and to see your death and burial in the context of the victory won through his death and resurrection,” said Father Tim. Open communication with loved ones is essential. A careful overview of just how much money you want to spend, who you want involved, the religious music you prefer and where you want your funeral liturgies and burial to take place are also key areas to address.

All parishes have a booklet that outlines funeral services. Individuals can choose from scriptural readings and prayers that appeal to them. Working closely with a priest or other parish staff member familiar with Catholic funeral liturgies helps this process evolve, Sister Nicole said. “Funeral directors should also be a part of this planning process, as they will carry out the wishes of the deceased. It is important that families know what to expect during the process of burying a loved one.”

The ‘process’ of burying a loved one is technically called ‘The Rite of Christian Burial.’ It includes three parts: the vigil, the funeral liturgy and committal. The vigil typically occurs the evening prior to the funeral. During this time the church accompanies the mourners in their initial adjustment to the death of a loved one and the sorrow it entails. Mourners express their sorrow through sharing and are encouraged to find strength and consolation through faith in Christ and his resurrection. The vigil may take place in a church or a funeral home.

The second part of The Rite of Christian Burial is the funeral liturgy itself where the community gathers with the family of the deceased to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and to seek strength in Christ.

On Holy Ground

The Franciscan Missionaries established the first Catholic cemetery in St. Augustine in the 1600s. Their burial ground was located next to the monastery - the current site of the National Guard headquarters.

In 1702, a new cemetery was erected in St. Augustine for the Catholic Guale and Timucuan Indians at the Tolomoto Indian Mission. An outbreak of yellow fever caused city officials to close the cemetery in 1884. A new cemetery was opened at the Mission Nombre de Dios next to the Chapel of Our Lady of La Leche. However, it was not considered an ideal burial location due to its proximity to the water’s edge.

The Diocese of Saint Augustine was established in 1870 and for the next 43 years, ten cemeteries were opened throughout northeast Florida. Many of these cemeteries are open today and are operated by parishes.

The oldest cemetery still operated by the diocese is San Lorenzo Cemetery in St. Augustine. Bishop John Moore opened the cemetery in 1892. Mary Murray was the first Catholic to be buried there on May 24, 1892. In 1913, the diocese opened St. Mary Cemetery in Korona, serving the Polish Catholics of Flagler and Volusia Counties. It too is open today and operated by the diocese.

In the early 1900s, families, not wanting to be separated in death, began moving their loved ones from the cemetery at Mission Nombre de Dios to San Lorenzo. A mortuary chapel was built in 1924 and today is a central feature of the cemetery located on U.S. Highway 1. Interred in the chapel are Bishops John Moore, William Kenny, Patrick Barry and Archbishop Joseph Hurley. Surrounding the chapel are the resting places of several of our diocesan priests and the Sisters of St. Joseph who have served in Florida since 1866. Many of the people who rest in San Lorenzo Cemetery are descendants of the 600 Minorcan refugees who arrived in St. Augustine in 1777.

For more than 100 years, families have come to San Lorenzo to celebrate Mass, offer novenas and pray for their deceased relatives and friends. With the legitimate rise in Catholics choosing to be cremated, San Lorenzo Cemetery offers traditional family plots, cremation gardens, columbarium niches and family mausoleums. They also sell monuments and offer a flower service for those unable to visit their loved ones.

For a list of all Catholic cemeteries in the diocese, visit and click on the ministries tab.

To donate to the renovation projects of San Lorenzo and St. Mary’s, and to help them maintain the grounds, please call (904) 824-6680.

The third part is the Rite of Committal, which takes place at the gravesite. In committing the deceased to their resting place, the community expresses hope that the deceased awaits the glory of the resurrection. The deceased passes with the farewell prayers of the community of believers into the welcoming company of those who see God face to face and the family and friends embark on a life without a loved one with the sure and certain hope that one day we shall be together again.

The Rite of Christian Burial can be a little different from church to church. One priest may allow a sharing of memories or a eulogy at a funeral Mass, and another may not. The vigil is typically the place in which friends and families are invited to share memories of the deceased.

Sister Nicole is seeing a trend where more and more parishes are coordinating committees to help families with needs during this time, such as helping write thank you cards and planning a meal for family members after the funeral. “Burying the dead is a corporal work of mercy,” she said. “The grief and bereavement ministry is wonderful.”

We buried my mother two days after Easter, in Calvary Cemetery, in Louisville, Ky. It was an early spring day, the kind of day where the sun kisses the earth and coaxes the robins to nest and the tulips and poppies to parade their colors. The wind blew warm on my face and I smiled through my tears.

I think she had it all planned out.

For additional resources, turn to A Catholic Funeral, a 64-page booklet published by Liguori Publications, $3.95. The booklet is a hands-on practical guide to planning a funeral for families. Order online at or call (800) 325-9521.