To walk up the marble tile center aisle of St. Louis Cathedral is to step over and past the bones of people. Lots of people.
The triple-spired cathedral that is the international symbol for New Orleans is more than a church. It’s a working cemetery as well.
The mortal remains of 11 bishops and archbishops, as well as the unmarked graves of scores of early residents of the French and Spanish colony lie under the cathedral’s floor.
On Thursday, the cathedral will receive another body when hundreds of priests, bishops, and members of the general public gather celebrate a funeral Mass for Archbishop Philip Hannan.
Hannan died early Thursday at age 98, having spent 23 years as archbishop and another 23 years in an active public retirement in and around New Orleans. By long tradition, Catholic bishops and archbishops are buried in or near their cathedrals.
After his funeral Mass, Hannan’s remains will be lowered into a crypt below the crimson carpet in the sanctuary in front of the altar, where he will lie alongside eight predecessors.
An ancient tradition
Burying the honored dead within churches — or more accurately, building churches atop the remains of honored dead -- is an ancient tradition, dating to the earliest days of Christianity, said Monsignor Crosby Kern, the cathedral’s rector.
The temporal center of Roman Catholicism, St. Peter’s Basilica, is the most recent of several churches built over the site that tradition holds is the grave of Simon Peter, the fisherman Jesus picked to lead the church.
Recent archeology seems to have confirmed that St. Peter’s is, in fact, atop the grave of the apostle.
Later, Christians celebrated the Eucharist on the very tombs of the martyred dead, partly in the belief that those dead heroes were “friends of God” who would help carry forward their prayers in heaven, according to Ken Woodward, author of “Making Saints,” an account of the Catholic church’s sanctification process.
Saints' relics entombed in altars
For centuries, Catholic altars worldwide were required to keep the link between worship and tombs by containing a tiny relic of a saint — perhaps a sliver of bone — making each altar a symbolic tomb, said Monsignor Ken Hedrick of the archdiocese’s Office of Worship. The practice is no longer required, but strongly encouraged, he said.
For tens of millions of Christians, the Protestant Reformation eliminated the role of intercessory saints, and dismissed any inclination to draw near to their remains in prayer, in church or elsewhere.
But even so, the custom of burial in church is not restricted to Catholicism.
The Episcopal Church’s Washington National Cathedral, technically the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and Paul, houses the remains of more than a dozen people, including writer Helen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson.