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Campus cemeteries serve as reminders of death, cycle of life

| Thursday, October 31, 2019

Located on the edges of campus, Notre Dame’s two cemeteries go largely unnoticed, serving instead as the backdrop of students’ everyday walks to and from campus. As home to not just one, but two, cemeteries, the University is distinct for this fact among its peers. Both the Cedar Grove Cemetery on Notre Dame Avenue and the Holy Cross Cemetery on St. Mary’s Road have existed as long as the University.

“Notre Dame is probably the only one that actually started a cemetery at the same time they started the university,” Leon Glon, manager of Cedar Grove Cemetery, said. “Basically the cemetery was used to make money and … it was the first Catholic Cemetery in the area. It was kind of a two-fold thing: they needed it to help support the University, but yet they were taking care of the corporal mercy of burying the dead.”

While Cedar Grove was a public cemetery maintained by members of the Congregation of Holy Cross as a source of income for the University, Notre Dame founder Fr. Edward Sorin also established a second cemetery for the Holy Cross community alone, Fr. Austin Collins, religious superior of Corby Hall, said. With a few exceptions, deceased priests and brothers are buried in the next available slot without regard to rank or role.

“As you can see from the cemetery, everyone’s equal,” Collins said. “It’s just a little cross, RIP — ‘rest in peace’ — and your name. It is just kind of an equality thing: you’re a fellow brother Holy Cross.”

Cedar Grove was converted to a private cemetery in the 1970s and gravesites were reserved for faculty and staff at the University. When Glon began working at Cedar Grove in the 1980s, he said, the cemetery was in poor condition.

“It was kind of off-the-radar for so many years,” Glon said. “Thirty years ago we were on the very outside edge of campus so it wasn’t really anything that anyone really thought about, it was just kind of there and I would say was kind of neglected. But, you know, things started to change … they started to look at the cemetery differently. They looked at it as an asset instead of a liability.” 

With budget increases that led to better upkeep and the 2004 renovation of All Souls Chapel, Glon said, the cemetery began to capture the attention of alumni and students alike. While in-ground spaces are still reserved for faculty and staff, alumni are now able to be buried in the cemetery’s above-ground mausoleum either in niche spaces for cremated remains or full-body entombment.

Though Cedar Grove Cemetery’s demography is increasingly Notre Dame related, Glon said members of families who purchased plots decades ago are still being buried in the original 16 acres of the cemetery alongside their forebears. Cedar Grove cements the ongoing relationship and deeply intertwined history of the University and the South Bend community.

“The cemetery has been active since its inception and it’s got a lot of South Bend history here,” Glon said. “Some of the founders of the city are buried here in Cedar Grove.”

In an increasingly mobile world, Glon said, Notre Dame remains a constant in the lives of its alumni, which now make up the majority of burials each year. Burial in Cedar Grove allows for alumni legacies to continue in a tangible way, he said.

“For alumni, and I hear this all the time, they went to school here, met their wife here, they got married here, their kids are going to school here or in some cases now their grandkids so its become really ingrained into the family,” Glon said. “… So many people are transient: jobs will take them from one coast to the other but Notre Dame seems to be home.”

Similarly, the Holy Cross Cemetery provides a beautiful and simple end to the earthly lives and spiritual journeys of those members of the congregation for whom Notre Dame is home, he said, by serving as a reminder of the fellowship and unity of the religious community.

“For most of us … Notre Dame is our home, but it’s also just such a sacred place,” Collins said. “Most of the men have taken final vows in the Basilica, the majority of them have been ordained there and this is where their funerals are. They have the same funeral and they have a procession from the Basilica to the Holy Cross cemetery. It is a very humbling and spiritual experience, I would say.” 

“We’re buried in the same type of coffin, buried in the same type of vault in the next slot in line so I think it relates to the vow of poverty, relates to simplicity, but it also relates to … this is your brothers and community, you know, there’s no special spot,” Collins said.

Glon and Collins both said the cemeteries provide the opportunity for spiritual reflection in peaceful and beautiful settings. Collins said he sees many alumni looking for specific graves in Holy Cross Cemetery as a special way to remember those who have passed.

“It’s wonderful during Alumni Weekend especially,” Collins said. “The cemetery is very crowded for people going and looking up their former professors or rectors or friends that they had lived with or been taught by. I think it’s a way to connect with the past. … I can remember someone yelling out, ‘Oh, I found Fr. [Charles] Sheedy’s grave’ once, or I found some older guys that were there looking for their teachers. So I think it is a spiritual place.”

Notre Dame is one of few universities in the United States with cemeteries on campus. While the cemeteries may not play a large part in the everyday lives of Notre Dame students, Collins said the mere presence of the rows of humble crosses in Holy Cross Cemetery provides an opportunity for reflection.

“[University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh’s] driver Marty Ogren would say that Fr. Ted would always ask him to stop so he could say a prayer before he left the campus there,” Collins said.

Collins emphasized the value of coming to terms with death and pointed to the cemeteries on campus as useful ways to do so. The Holy Cross congregation buries 10 to 12 members each year, Collins said, and their funerals burials are a reminder of the inevitability and peace of death.

“Some people are very uncomfortable with death but … it’s really as natural as being born,” Collins said. “We have to look at it that way — the cycle of life, and for people of faith that should not be a scary opportunity. It can actually be a really healing, humanizing experience to see someone pass from this life to the eternal life.”

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