Bishops consecrate the physical land that shelters the dead until the Resurrection.
When Christians talk about “holy ground,” it is typically in reference to a church building, the place where God’s presence is most keenly felt. While that is certainly true, one holy place that is often neglected is the local cemetery.
The Church has always treated the dead with the utmost respect and the cemetery is where that belief is clearly practiced. When a new Catholic cemetery is created, the bishop (or sometimes a priest appointed by him) will come out to bless it and hallow the ground where the dead will be buried.
The first action of the bishop is to walk around the entire cemetery, sprinkling holy water on the ground. During that time the following words are sung, reminiscent of music during the Easter Asperges ritual: “Purify me with hyssop, Lord, and I shall be clean of sin. Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
Then the bishop says the following prayer from the Roman Ritual (or other prayers from the updated ritual book), purifying the cemetery from all evil, making it a sacred place until the end of time.
Lord God, Father of everlasting glory, solace of the sorrowing, life of the just, glory of the lowly, we humbly importune you to keep this cemetery free from any vileness of unclean spirits, to cleanse and to bless it, and finally to give lasting wholeness to the bodies brought here for burial. And at the end of time, when the angels sound their trumpets, let all who have received the sacrament of baptism, who have persevered in the Catholic faith until death, and who have had their remains laid to rest in this cemetery, be rewarded in body and in soul with the unending joys of heaven; through Christ our Lord.
A second prayer is said, recalling the mercy of God and praying for all those who will be buried there.
God, Creator of the world and Redeemer of mankind, who wondrously dispose the destinies of all creatures, visible and invisible; we humbly and sincerely beseech you to hallow, purify, and bless this cemetery, where the bodies of your servants are duly laid to rest, after the labor and fatigue of this life come to an end. Pardon, in your great mercy, the sins of those who put their trust in you, and graciously grant unending consolation to their bodies that will lie at rest in this cemetery, awaiting the trumpet-call of the Archangel Michael.
These prayers are important and emphasize the sacredness of a cemetery, a place similar in dignity to a church building. It reminds us that cemeteries are set apart for a sacred purpose and should be treated as such.
So the next time you visit a cemetery remember that you walk on holy ground, blessed not only through the prayers of the bishop, but also by the presence of our deceased brothers and sisters in Christ.