Ayear -and-a-half after ground was officially broken, work on the first phase of expansion on the Memorial Gardens cemetery on the campus of Christ Cathedral is on pace for a July 2020 opening and a Nov. 2 All Souls Day dedication.
Although original plans were for a December 2019 opening, the schedule was pushed back soon after the July, 2019 dedication due to the complexity and scope of work.
Currently, the building of a new Sanctuary of Eternal Life is well underway.
“The construction is on schedule,” said Father Christopher Smith, episcopal vicar and rector for Christ Cathedral. “I think it will be very beautiful.”
“They’re pouring lots of concrete and lots of steel,” said Michael Wesner, director of cemeteries for the Diocese of Orange.
In addition to expanding the footprint of the cemetery and adding the sanctuary, the project will feature a mausoleum, sarcophagi (stone coffins) and thousands of glass and marble niches. The project will add .87 acres to the three-acre parcel, increasing the number of available burial spaces by 6,300. This number includes more than 4,000 niche spaces, 1,200 lawn spaces, sold in two-lot packages.
When done, the new sales office, sanctuary and mausoleum will flow seamlessly out of the original structures with the same architectural style and color palette, according to Wesner. There will also be colorful glass artwork as part of the expansion and greater access for the disabled.
The cemetery is valued not only for its tranquil setting and design, but as the only active cemetery on Catholic church grounds in the diocese. Because of that, “we’re out of space. There’s no room,” Fr. Chris said of the cemetery that was opened in 1991 by the late Rev. Robert Schuller on the grounds of the former Crystal Cathedral.
“Expansion is necessary due to diminished interment inventory to sell,” Wesner said when ground broke for the expansion. “We are completely sold out of traditional grounds space, under 100 traditional mausoleum spaces, little over 1,000 cremation niche spaces remaining.”
Because of the shortage of acreage for full body burials, the new cemetery offers cremation spaces and services as an alternative.
In 1963, the Vatican lifted the prohibition on cremation, as long as the disposition is treated with the dignity of full body burial. Scattering cremated remains or keeping them anywhere but in a cemetery is generally not considered against the “reverent final disposition that the Church directs,” according to Diocese literature.
Information about funerals, costs and cemetery availability is available at occem.org.
Because of the demand on ground space for full body burials, Wesner said it is a good idea for congregants to pre-plan and reserve spaces. Upon completion of the first phase, another half-acre expansion is expected to follow, although that could take 10 years to complete.
Despite the longstanding cremation allowance, Wesner said “there are a lot of misconceptions on the Catholic Church’s position.”
Nationally, the cremation rate has topped burials since 2015, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, and the percentages climb each year. The 2019 cremation rate is projected to be 54.8 percent and burial rate is projected to be 39 percent. Bodies can also be donated to science and medical organizations.
Although Catholics have been much slower to transition to cremation, Wesner said the current rate in the diocese is 43 percent and “it goes up one or two percent every year.”
Catholic families are encouraged to choose Catholic cemeteries, as burial and cremation are important traditions of the faith. The diocese has Catholic funeral plans to aid families in honoring traditions and guiding them through the funeral Mass, rites, liturgy and committal.
Memorial Gardens, with its proximity to the cathedral and cozy space set below grade and flanked by fountains is particularly appealing.
Father Smith says cemeteries and funeral traditions have special significance in the Catholic Church because of the closeness of baptism and death, with death being a rebirth into eternal life. Proximity to the cathedral adds to that.
The diocese has maintained the Memorial Gardens since 2012 and upgraded landscaping. Fountains and irrigation were upgraded and improved. At that time, the grounds were expanded to open space for in-ground burials, which, according to Wesner, sold out within eight months.
There are currently more than 1,800 interred at the site.
The parcel at Christ Cathedral is the only ecumenical burial ground and remains available to non-Catholics to honor the cemetery’s multi-denominational roots. However, about 99 percent of those now purchasing spaces are Catholic, according to Wesner.
“We are blessed as a Diocese that Rev. Robert Schuller had the foresight to include a cemetery in his plans for the Crystal Cathedral property,” Bishop Vann said in a statement at the time of groundbreaking. “Interment space is increasingly limited within Orange County and having such a serene, solemn and convenient location for families at the heart of our Diocese is a unique gift.”