When I first pulled into the University of Notre Dame campus, I was perplexed by an image of apparent juxtaposition. To my right was the collegiate vista one expects: a well-manicured lawn (the “Irish Green”) leading up to an impressive arts building (Debartolo Performing Arts Center) and farther into the heart of campus. To my left, was a more arresting sight—Cedar Grove Cemetery (the background for this essay comes from the cemetery homepage). Needless to say, the hallowed ground of a cemetery was the last thing I expected to see on my journey to learn more about my Notre Dame graduate program; though, many quips could be made about just how compatible images of death and graduate studies are.
Eventually, I grew accustomed to the sight of the cemetery as I headed onto Holy Cross Drive. I even learned about another cemetery on campus—Holy Cross Cemetery—that was tucked away farther north of campus. But lately, especially in the midst of the buildup to Halloween and All Saints Day, I have returned to my original curiosity about this unusual campus landmark. Why is it there and who is buried there? Why does it seem unusual to me and other visitors?
Cedar Grove was established in 1843, just one year after Fr. Edward Sorin and his fellow Holy Cross priests established the university itself. Overall, finding out this information did not surprise me—after all, death is a fact of life, so the cemetery served a practical purpose for this burgeoning community. However, it made me pause to wonder why the historic fact of a cemetery alongside a university felt more natural to me than the contemporary presence of headstones next to ivory towers. After all, academia has not suddenly become immune to death. Perhaps it was because I had never seen a cemetery so prominently displayed alongside a college or university. Cedar Grove’s presence is not subtle or merely “practical,” at least not visually. Furthermore, the phenomenon of alumni burial on site added an additional layer of intrigue for me that could not be explained away by ritual practicality or historical happenstance.
In the 1970’s, responsibility for Cedar Grove passed over to the hands of the university. Previously maintained by Holy Cross, the cemetery had been open to the public in the 19th and for much of the 20th century. In 1977, it became a private cemetery in which Notre Dame faculty, staff, and retirees were permitted burial. To this day, faculty, staff, and retirees meeting certain requirements are the only ones permitted in-ground burial; however, popular demand led to alumni and parishioners of Sacred Heart being permitted above-ground internment in the Our Lady of Sorrows mausoleum, which was constructed in 2007. Those faculty, staff, and retirees who do not meet the more specific criteria of in-ground burial (e.g. certain amount of years of service to the University) are also eligible for above-ground internment in the Our Lady mausoleum.
This past March, I visited Jerusalem for the first time and I found myself drawn, more than anything else, to the Mount of Olives. The western slope of the Mount dips into the Kidron Valley and holds innumerable Jewish graves from as far back as 3000 years ago. Many Jews prize burial space on the side of the Mount of Olives. Though some debate the exact reasons why and how this burial practice emerged, common reasons given involve the image of the eschaton and the holiness of the land. Burial on the eastern mount in Jerusalem means that when that fated day comes, their bodies will rise from their resting place and be able to quickly behold the glory of the Lord returning to the Temple Mount. Furthermore, the land is itself holy and being interred there ensures certain sanctity.
I could not help but think of this when I found out about burial practices at Cedar Grove Cemetery. Like the Mount of Olives, Cedar Grove is in high demand and has had to accommodate this demand over the years to manage the diminishing burial space. There is something about the physical space of Cedar Grove cemetery and its proximity to the University of Notre Dame that made people want to be buried there—but why? Obviously there is no Church teaching that Christ will join his Mother on the Golden Dome at the End of the Age. For me, there is an easier answer for those members of the faculty and staff who lived their days out on campus and not just their undergraduate or graduate years. The community they lived in is the community they died in, and their burial in the midst of that community feels natural. But even the presupposition that people want to be buried where they live and die could be probed or challenged; and it does not account for the reason that scattered alumni return to campus posthumously.
The ministry formed in conjunction with the establishment of Our Lady mausoleum and alumni burial is called, “Coming Home,” and seeks to serve those arranging their future burial at Cedar Grove. It occurred to me that this name was very telling of how Cedar Grove understood the motivations of those seeking burial there. In their informational packet, Coming Home anticipates some of the reasons why alumni would want to buried at Cedar Grove:
Perhaps you are one of the many people who connect Notre Dame with some of your most profound experiences of Christian community. At Our Lady’s University, the sense of Church as family and the taste for “life, sweetness, and hope” are nurtured. For you and your loved ones, being here is “coming home.”
Cedar Grove has somehow been imbued with a sanctity that calls alumni to a posthumous pilgrimage. Like the Mount of Olives, it enmeshes past nostalgia and future hope to physical space. Unlike the Mount of Olives, this past nostalgia is less an historic past and more of an experiential past. For those buried, Cedar Grove connects them to their “most profound experience of Christian community,” to where their sense of Church as family and their taste for life, sweetness, and hope” were nurtured. I do not think that this desire to enshrine one’s death in a space that was treasured in their life is unique to Cedar Grove. Countless people who do not undergo Catholic burial rites request that their ashes be spread in a place that was significant to them in their life. Even those who undergo Christian burial often desire to be buried in their hometown or alongside their spouse and the rest of their family. Cedar Grove just understands “family” as more than blood and “home” as more than where you grew up. Its claim as “home” and “family” is simultaneously tied to a nostalgic past and a transcendent realization of home and family.
Even in Cedar Grove’s appeal to an experiential past, there is a recognition of tradition and its potency. The Coming Home pamphlet goes on to say:
On this campus, memories matter. Appreciation of intellectual excellence and moral virtue persists. People are cherished as they are, and some who become “legends” share their luster with us. The young and the old, alike, are engaged in the noble work of stewardship, binding past to future with a lively, present-moment faith. Final rest in Cedar Grove Cemetery, the historic gateway to the beautiful Notre Dame campus, is a continuation of these relationships, which transcend generations.
The nod to “legends,” “binding past to future with a lively, present-moment faith,” while specifically Notre Dame in character, hints at broader themes of the saints, tradition, and the Church. Not only is University history and tradition woven into Cedar Grove, but Cedar Grove is woven into a broader history of the Christian faithful and the tradition of the Church—or at least it would seem. The sanctity of “legends” can permeate the earth and “share their luster” with those buried around and those living close by. Coming Home acknowledges a community, a family that surpasses time and place (“relationships which transcend generations”) and yet remains in continuity with the nostalgic relationships formed during life at Notre Dame. In this, experience and tradition, past, present, and future are slippery and tend to blend.
I would be lying if I said that this consideration of Cedar Grove has sufficiently answered my questions about why so many want to be buried there. I expect that one would have to conduct a more thorough ethnographic investigation to nail down precise reasons from those actually seeking burial there. However, Cedar Grove’s interpretation of itself and those seeking burial is illuminating not only in the quest to understand why people want to be buried there, but also why people want to be buried in any specific place. Our bodies and temporal space are significant in how we grasp our relationship to divine realities. The only frame of reference we have to anticipate the fullness of eschatological Christian community and fellowship is from those relationships on earth that brought us closest to the profundity of what is to come.
So, why shouldn’t someone seek burial in a place that they fathom as their closest foretaste of heavenly communion to God and Church? It seems that to some extent, this is what is happening at Cedar Grove. This personal connection to community combined with a larger narrative of faith and tradition results in remembering that looks back and ahead, that simultaneously recalls life on earth and anticipates life in heaven. And this all comes to a head in a moment where the poles of past, present, and future meet—in death and burial.