By Greg Mellen     3/23/2021

Parishioners visiting Christ Cathedral are starting to see the long-promised Cathedral Memorial Gardens cemetery expansion coming into shape as construction crews close in on the finishing line. 

More than two and a half years after ground was broken on the $15.5 million project, Mike Wesner, director of cemeteries, said the finishing touches should be applied to the 2-acre gem nestled in the shadow of the cathedral sometime in the next month. A dedication is expected in November. 

A year ago, plans were to have the new project opened by July 2020 and dedicated on All Souls Day that year. Then the COVID-19 pandemic threw all those plans into disarray. 

“The shipping has been our biggest problem,” Wesner said, noting that glass and stone from Italy and Germany were backlogged by months and further stymied by shipping delays into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Also construction during the first part of the pandemic was halted. Delays notwithstanding, excitement is high about the new grounds, particularly the new Sanctuary of Eternal Life. 

“It’s really shaping up beautifully and you can see it coming together,” Wesner said. “People are stunned at how beautiful it’s coming out.” 

The Sanctuary of Eternal Life will be a focal point of the cemetery. 

Father Christopher Smith, Episcopal vicar and rector of Christ Cathedral, was involved in the naming and designing of both the Sanctuary of Eternal Life and the existing Sanctuary of Perpetual Light. 

The chapel was designed to be prominent to all who visit the cemetery grounds and to those who enter the campus from the Lewis Street entrance. 

It features commissioned art, including a large window depicting the resurrected Christ flanked by two angels and created in a stunning, reflective “gold luster.” 

“The real intent of this from the very beginning was to make sure this thing is visible and beautiful in the day as well as night,” Wesner said in a broadcast of “Cathedral Square” with Father Christopher in May, 2020. 

The sanctuary is designed in such a way that there will be light reflected inward when the sun is out and outward in the evening. 

The project adds about an acre to the existing parcel, doubling its size.  

“Expansion is necessary due to diminished interment inventory to
sell,” Wesner said when ground broke for the expansion. 

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 of Orange, which oversees more than 100 acres of property across four operating cemeteries. 

The cemetery was opened in 1991 by the late Rev. Robert Schuller on the grounds of the former Crystal Cathedral. As a result, it is the only ecumenical burial ground in the diocese and is available to non-Catholics to honor the cemetery’s multi-denominational roots. However, Wesner said nearly all of the current interments and reservations are for Catholics.   

“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 Kevin 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.” 

Wesner said although there is a master plan for further expansion, he expects the current one to last for 10 to 15 years. Another expansion would be designed around future burial patterns and practices. 

The current cemetery expansion was designed to flow from the existing grounds. There is also a ramp adjacent to the baptistry in the cathedral to allow for a seamless procession from the church to the burial site and improved access for those with disabilities. 

“Just having a cemetery on campus is unique,” Alma Ochoa, associate director of cemeteries, said in a “Cathedral Square’’ interview. “We have a process where you can walk loved ones to their final resting place, and you can’t do that anywhere else.” 

Smith said he loves the symbolism of proceeding from the baptistry where the faithful enter spiritual life, to the grave where they enter eternal life. 

The expanded grounds, like the existing cemetery, will be sunken below grade, with fountains at the entry and added statuary. 

The expansion also features a mausoleum, sarcophagi  (stone coffins) and thousands of glass and marble niches for cremated remains.  

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 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.