On All Souls Day, Joe Hubbard reflects on Catholic duty to bury the dead

All Souls’ Day is a time when Joe Hubbard reflects on the Catholic duty to bury the dead.

Hubbard, who is director of four Catholic cemeteries in the Diocese of Belleville (Mt. Carmel Cemetery in Belleville, Holy Cross Cemetery in Fairview Heights, St. Philip Cemetery in East St. Louis and Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Centreville) says burying the dead isn’t one of the seven corporal works of mercy you normally think of.

Indeed, one Catholic writer called burying the dead “the lonely stepchild of the corporal works of mercy.”

It is easy to see why. The other corporal works—feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and visiting the sick and imprisoned—are often embraced by Catholics, especially those committed to social justice. They often have entire ministries and even nonprofit organizations dedicated to try to meet those needs.

Six corporal works of mercy appear in Matthew 25. Experts say burying the dead was added to make the list a spiritually significant seven.

But burying the dead is equally important, even if it sometimes gets overlooked. Death makes many people uncomfortable, and Christian burials are often attended to by priests and relatives, and maybe some dedicated retired lunch ladies.

Burying the dead is just as important as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, Hubbard says. And he should know. The founder of Catholic Urban Programs has spent a lifetime providing meals and shelter, too.

“The Gospel calls us to take the individual from the womb to the tomb,” he says. “Burying the dead is really about the dignity of the human being. It helps the survivors and it helps the church by offering ritual and meaning.”

Hubbard notes that the admonition to bury the dead comes from the Old Testament Book of Tobit. Tobit suffered exile for burying the dead, especially burying criminals.

When he took over the Catholic Diocese of Belleville Cemetery Association in 1991, Hubbard wanted the association to become a ministry. Today, part of that ministry is to help those who other cemeteries turn their back on.

“They come to Joe knowing that hope is here,” says Hubbard’s assistant, Dee Dee Murray. “A lot of people die with no insurance, no property, and their families turn their backs on them, especially if their death was a result of suicide or drugs.”

“We take care of all of God’s children,” Hubbard says.

It is somewhat ironic that Hubbard is director of four cemeteries because he used to be terrified of death.

“Once I started working with St. Vincent de Paul I was exposed to so much death I got used to it,” he says. “You’ve got to have faith or death will scare you.”

Hubbard still decorates the nearly 700 graves of the people he has helped bury with lilies and poinsettias for Easter and Christmas.

“All of them touched me in some way,” he says. “I used to sit with these people when they were dying.”
To Hubbard, All Souls Day is a celebration of the many people who have touched our lives and their entrance into eternal life.

Christian burial is also connected to our belief in the resurrection of the body.

“We were born to be here, but we are also born to go back to our heavenly father,” he says. “That’s why we can’t get too attached to things. We come into life with nothing and we leave with nothing.”

Hubbard and Murray get a lot of help from local clergy, including Father Clyde Grogan, who celebrates Mass monthly for those who were buried in one of the cemeteries.

And Father Dennis Voss hosts a grief support group that meets the second Wednesday of the month, and helps those who have suffered a loss work through their grief.

“Grieving is so important,” says Murray. “If you don’t grieve you end up having all kinds of physical and emotional problems. Grief shared is grief lessened.

“Some who have been through the group sessions, come back and help others,” she adds. “They form lasting relationships. Both Father Grogran and Father Voss are instrumental in keeping the cemeteries going and ministering to families,” Murray says. “We are very grateful for their dedication.”

To contribute to the Joe Hubbard Compassionate Assistance Fund to help discount burials or to donate to the Holy Innocence Project which helps families with infants who have died get a permanent marker contact Dee Dee Murray at 618-397-0181.