Ascension parish on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is marking its 125th anniversary year, beginning this month. The parish committee has sought to plan commemorations that “would have an impact on people’s lives,” said Father Daniel Kearney, the pastor.
One such commemoration began with a Saturday morning Memorial Mass Nov. 9 in the parish church on West 107th Street for 18 deceased parishioners.
These parishioners died at various times, as recently as October and all the way back to 1998. After their respective Funeral Masses, the remains of the deceased were cremated and kept at home by their families, which Father Kearney said is not uncommon because of an inability to pay for burials.
It was a beautiful and uplifting 9 a.m. Spanish-language liturgy at which the parish’s Walkirios choir provided music. Each container holding cremated remains and an accompanying identification card were placed atop a long, covered table in the church’s center aisle. About 60 to 70 relatives and friends attended.
Father Kearney, the principal celebrant, spoke in his homily about St. Joseph of Arimathea, who he called “one of the unsung heroes of the Gospels.”
“We read a little bit about him on Palm Sunday and then again on Good Friday. You may recall that the Gospels describe him as being a good and just man. He has the permission of Pontius Pilate to remove the body of Jesus from the cross late on Good Friday afternoon. Joseph of Arimathea carefully wrapped the body of Jesus in a linen, according to Jewish tradition, and he put him gently in the tomb.”
“What Joseph of Arimathea did was an act of great kindness,” Father Kearney said. “This was a real act of mercy.”
Some of Father Kearney’s words were borrowed from a March 2, 2017 column by Cardinal Dolan in Catholic New York called “Burials in Our Catholic Cemeteries” in which the cardinal outlined initiatives at the four archdiocesan cemeteries: Gate of Heaven in Hawthorne, Resurrection on Staten Island, Ascension in Airmont and Calvary in Queens.
The initiatives included a St. Joseph of Arimathea section established for the burial of cremated remains, with the names of the deceased engraved on a communal marker. The section was in response to a need for low-cost burial options, for those who had been cremated but never buried or placed in a niche at a cemetery. (Many priests, especially those serving in Hispanic parishes, had told Cardinal Dolan their concern that cost was impeding long-standing Catholic traditions of bereavement and burial.)
The cardinal, in the same column, cited a Vatican document, “To Rise With Christ,” approved by Pope Francis. “Ashes are supposed to be reserved in sacred places, namely Catholic cemeteries, to make sure the deceased is memorialized and included in the prayers and remembrances of the entire believing community.”
The cardinal said entrusting cremated remains to a Catholic cemetery “ensures that they will not be discarded or disrespected as the memory of the deceased fades from generation to generation.”
At the Ascension Mass, members of the Cespedes and Aguilo families remembered Merquiades Cespedes, who died in 2011, and Raymundo Aguilo, who passed away two years earlier.
Mirta Cespedes, who was accompanied by her sister, Maria Cespedes, said they were grateful that their brother’s ashes would finally be buried after being kept at the home of a relative who is a parishioner of Ascension.
“It was a good idea,” Mirta said. “They had the ashes at the home and they wanted the ashes buried.”
Another relative, Carolyn Aguilo, who was serving as a translator, quoted Mirta: “We give thanks to the Church and to the archdiocese for allowing this.”
After Mass, the relatives boarded two buses, courtesy of Redden Funeral Home, for the ride to Gate of Heaven Cemetery.
A prayerful, silent atmosphere pervaded the chapel there. Relatives and cemetery officials completed required paperwork in orderly fashion.
At the St. Joseph of Arimathea section, Father Kearney offered prayers and blessed the gravesite. The containers of ashes were placed into one vault, and the names of the deceased will soon be engraved on a communal marker. The pastor said he hopes to return with his parishioners once the marker is in place.
“It was one of the most prayerful things I’ve done in a long time, other than Sunday Mass,” Father Kearney said. “The people were so appreciative…They said it was such a wonderful idea.”
Scott Hanley, the managing director of Calvary and Allied Cemeteries, said it was the first time a parish had connected such a burial with a parish anniversary.
The pastor said the entire experience was also a “good teaching moment.” One woman had stored ashes in three containers, which she planned to distribute. Father Kearney was able to tell her why “ashes aren’t meant to be given out.” She was encouraged to bring the remains to Ascension for the Mass and burial at Gate of Heaven, which she did.