A few years ago, I found solace in a place I had avoided since my father’s suicide 50 years ago: a cemetery.
My father was only 37 years old in 1969, when an overcrowded psychiatric hospital ward released him against his will. Neither his genius-level IQ nor the electroshock treatments he had endured could liberate him from his bouts of depressive and manic episodes brought on by Bipolar disorder. At 4 years old, I remember having to stand on my toes to look into the casket that held my father. When his body was moved to the crematorium, I wept inconsolably. His remains were not buried in the sacred ground of a Catholic cemetery. Tragically, my own mother’s mother had also committed suicide years before my father did.
Burdened by so many sources of shame, my mother fell into a paralyzing depression. For a time, she was unable to take care of us, and my younger sister and I lived in a foster home. Even when my mother was able to claim us, our lives felt hopeless. Talking about my own fears of mortality or the feeling of abandonment was too painful so I coped by excelling in sports and studies.
As a teenager, I met a young woman who brought me to the Catholic Church, the church my mother had left behind years before. Shortly after that, I followed her to Loyola Marymount University and as an 18-year-old convert, I felt the ardor of my newfound faith and briefly contemplated becoming a priest. However, that was before I fell in love with the woman who would become my wife.
Inspired by the Jesuits, I majored in political science and had my eyes on a university professorship. However, my in-laws invited me to join their family business and I soon discovered I had a knack for entrepreneurial endeavors and finance. While I did not love running an industrial supply and manufacturing company, I appreciated the family business providing a means to support my family, our employees and my in-laws. As a bigger company acquired the business, I became successful enough to start a small family foundation. But I wanted to do more than just give financial support to others. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and serve others in a meaningful and personal way. I often asked myself, “What if I could help others navigate the tragedy of family loss?”
When a bishop asked for help with the cemeteries department of his diocese, some friends balked at the idea of leaving “the real world,” to serve as the “cemetery guy.” The businessman in me became sold on fixing the diocese “problem” just as I would solve a manufacturing problem. Eventually, I found that fixing the finances was the relatively easy part. What was much more complex was that the faith community had inadvertently distanced itself from a great opportunity to serve, to bring lapsed Catholics back to the family, to embrace those who grieved. To change the system, I turned to the question St. Ignatius told us to ask every day in the Examen: “Where can I find God in this?” And God I found.
What started as a fledgling project with six employees a mere eight years ago has grown into a large and growing Catholic-owned, nonprofit organization called Catholic Funeral & Cemetery Services (CFCS), which sustains a vibrant community of believers nationwide.
CFCS as a ministry of the Catholic Church has allowed me to reconcile the tragic loss of my father. I have been able to enter into a world where families, employees and the Church were searching for meaning.
A few years ago, just days after the death of my mother, I went to the cemetery to recover my father’s remains. The 4-year-old boy that still lives in me felt the same piercing sorrow and loss he did so many years ago. But, this time, he also felt comforted in the hope that what awaits us is the “fullness of peace and joy.” My father finally rests in peace, in holy ground, next to my mother.
During this difficult time in our world, when so many have lost a loved one or loved ones — from COVID-19 or otherwise — I hope and pray that we’re able to bring the same solace and closure I have experienced to the individuals and families we serve. Death is never easy, but through our faith we have the promise of everlasting life and peace.
Robert Seelig is the CEO of Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services (CFCS), a Catholic Church owned ministry serving in more than 20 dioceses across the United States, and dedicated to providing education, outreach and professional funeral, cremation and cemetery services while following the teachings of the Catholic Church.
This blog was updated after posting.