Ashes to ashes: Families find final resting place for loved ones

Peter and Eugene Johnson grew up in Wadena. Their dad, Evan, ran the local barbershop. Both brothers joined the Army Air Force. Peter, the oldest, fought in World War II; Gene fought in the Korean War. 

After their military service, Peter went into education, earning a doctorate degree and teaching at various levels. He eventually ended up in the education department at St. Cloud State University. Peter and his wife, Jacquelyn, had five children. 

Evan Johnson poses with his sons, Eugene, left, and Peter, in this 1930s photo submitted by the Johnson family. (Photo courtesy of Johnson family)

When Peter died in 2005, half of his cremated remains, often referred to as “cremains,” were buried at Fort Snelling, where Jacquelyn, who died tragically in a car accident in 1968, was buried. The other half was kept by the family with the intent to have him buried at a later time. When that didn’t happen immediately, it became something that would happen “someday.” 

That “someday” came Nov. 8. Through what Peter’s son, Chris, calls a divine intervention, he heard that Father Aaron Kuhn, pastor of parishes in Wadena and Bluffton, was offering families the opportunity to bury cremated remains of their loved ones in the local Catholic cemetery. 

“I got the idea from a parish in the Twin Cities,” Father Kuhn said. “Although there are many reasons people may keep cremated remains at home, it does, in a way, hold others back from being able to fully grieve and find that closure that they want and deserve. As much as it seems like a sign of respect to keep a family member close to them at home, it’s actually a greater good to take time to bury the dead. 

“One of the corporal works of mercy is to bury the dead,” Father Kuhn continued. “This is our way as a Church of living out our mission to care for people’s bodies and souls. We will pray for all of the souls of the people who have died and are being brought to us. This is the material way to care for them. … We can help them have a final resting place,” he said. 

When Chris heard what Father Kuhn was offering, right there in his father’s hometown, in the same cemetery where his grandparents — Peter’s parents, Evan and Veronica — are buried, he reached out to his family members who agreed that this was a unique and special opportunity. 

In the process , the family also decided to have Unc’s remains buried, too. He died in 2016 and his remains were never interred. 

“Wouldn’t it be something if they could be buried together?” Chris suggested. “We all as kids spent a great deal of time in Wadena. After our mother was killed, we spent a lot of time with our grandparents. Because of that, we also spent a lot of time with Unc, who was like a surrogate father to us. They were close brothers and the best of friends. For them to be together again, it couldn’t be more special,” Chris said. 

Father Aaron Kuhn held a prayer service Nov. 8 at St. Ann Parish in Wadena for three people whose remains were brought forth for burial in the parish’s cemetery.

A prayer service was held at St. Ann’s Church Nov. 8 for the two brothers as well as a third person whose family brought forth their loved one for interment. A private burial took place in the parish cemetery. A headstone will mark the grave with all of the names of those resting there. 

“This is something we hope to continue to offer year after year,” Father Kuhn said. “We hope the seed has been planted and that more people will come forward in the years to come.” 

Karen Copa, Eugene and Peter’s sister, feels a real sense of peace knowing her brothers’ remains are reunited with their parents’ graves in Wadena. Copa attended the service with her cousin, Benedictine Sister Suzanne Slominski, who also was very supportive of this idea. 

“For my brothers to be together with our parents provides a lot of comfort for me,” Copa said. “I just can’t believe how fortunate we are to have been given this opportunity.” 

After the ceremony, I could see the relief on my aunt’s face and my niece’s and sisters’ faces,” Chris added. “What gives me the most peace is that they now have a final resting place. It’s part of our faith and this is how we show honor to our deceased, to these men who loved us, who shaped us and formed us, who made us who we are. We are just so grateful for the opportunity to give them their due and show them the honor and respect of placing them on holy ground.” 

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“The cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain the ashes, the manner in which they are carried, the care and attention to appropriate placement and transport, and the final disposition. The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires. Whenever possible, appropriate means for recording with dignity the memory of the deceased should be adopted, such as a plaque or stone which records the name of the deceased.” 

— Order of Christian Funerals, 417 

“The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.” 

— Catechism of the Catholic Church 

THE DISCIPLINE OF CREMATION

Canon 1203 §1 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law states quite clearly that the bodies of the faithful are to be buried, their cremation being prohibited. Paragraph 2 of the same canon adds that it is illicit to cremate the body of a deceased member of the faithful and, if the deceased instructed, through a will or contract, that he was to be cremated, the instruction is to be considered “as not having been made.” In contrast, c. 1176 §3 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law states that, while the pious custom of burying the bodies of the deceased be observed, “the Church does not prohibit cremation unless it was chosen for reasons contrary to Christian doctrine.”

By Father Matthew Crane

Catholics aware of this change in the Church’s discipline often give credit to the Second Vatican Council, suggesting that the Church once understood cremation as intrinsically bad but changed that position, as she changed so much, at the Second Vatican Council. However, that is not exactly true. Even before the close of the council, the Holy Office Tribunal. (now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), through an instruction called Piam et constantem, “pointed out that cremation itself was not the issue, but the use of cremation by certain groups or persons to deny belief in the resurrection of the body. In fact, the Church, the document explained, never objected to cremation when it was clear “that there [was] an upright motive … based on serious reasons, especially of public order ….”

FATHER MATTHEW CRANE is pastor of St. Mary Help of Christians Parish in St. Augusta and adjutant judicial vicar for the St. Cloud Diocesan Tribunal. 

Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is a multimedia reporter for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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