Amid the sound of cascading water, Claire Thom and her sister Lori Van Buren ambled through a maze of orange day lilies, bronze markers, maple trees and granite benches Monday in search of their parents' final resting place.
Their father, Edmund Sylwestrak, had explained in a letter that he and his wife, Marian, wanted to be cremated and buried together. It was up to the children to decide where.
"We all knew this was the right place," Thom said, standing with her sister and their two sisters-in-law at the edge of the landscaped terrace at All Saints Cemetery in Des Plaines. "It suits Mom," Van Buren said. "She was a gardener, and my father always enjoyed that."
Faced with a growing number of Catholics choosing to be cremated when they die, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago opened its first cremation garden Monday, at All Saints Cemetery. Sylwestrak, who died last month, and his wife — who died seven years ago and whose remains have been kept by Thom — on Saturday will become one of the first couples to be buried there.
Only a quarter of an acre in size, the landscaped oasis outside a mausoleum fulfills a decree issued by the Vatican last fall that ashes should be preserved in church-sanctioned sacred spaces, not be kept in an urn or scattered.
Ted Ratajczyk, director of cemetery services for the archdiocese, said the cemetery has accepted for burial plenty of cremated remains over the years, but did not have a designated space for them. Families sometimes bring ashes to the cemetery five or 10 years after the cremation, he said.
"There are people who keep it in their home because they may not know what to do," Ratajczyk said. "They may be torn about what to do."
The Vatican instructions reiterated the church's preference for whole-body burial over cremation because of Catholics' belief in resurrection of the body. The decree provided clarification for Catholics who had no guidance on what to do with cremated remains beyond the wishes of their loved ones.
"These regulations are designed to give you, the faithful, the sense of peace that can only come from knowing that your loved one is in such care and their human remains are interred in sacred ground," wrote Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich to parishioners in a pamphlet given out during a blessing ceremony Monday at the new garden.
Though the church forbade cremation for centuries, the practice — as long as it is not intended to defy church teachings — became acceptable in 1963. Since 1997, the church has allowed ashes to be present during a funeral liturgy.
But scattering ashes outdoors or keeping them in the home is specifically prohibited.
Burial in a cemetery "encourages family members and the whole Christian community to pray for and remember the dead, while at the same time fostering the veneration of martyrs and saints," the Vatican letter said, adding that burial also discourages "unfitting or superstitious practices."
"After the Vatican sent out the letter ... we got a large amount of interest," Ratajczyk said. "We continue to come up with various types of options that might entice the family to say, 'This is the place. The place Mom and Dad should be.'"
In the garden at All Saints, people can choose from 14 different options for cremated remains to be stored, including hollowed-out benches, pedestals and boulders, as well as more traditional graves, and aboveground compartments where urns can be housed and sealed.
The All Saints garden provides 300 spaces for about 800 burials, Ratajczyk said. Prices range from $2,700 to $6,750 per burial, which includes the plot, the cremation memorial, the interment and recording fees, the bronze memorialization, cremation urn vaults and perpetual maintenance. The all-inclusive package is comparable to the burial of cremated remains elsewhere in the cemetery. Whole-body burials range from $3,675 to $12,900.
Families who already have scattered ashes elsewhere can purchase plaques or memorials to honor their loved ones. They also can go to their local pastor if they still want a memorial Mass, Ratajczyk said.
More cremation gardens are being planned for some of the archdiocese's 45 cemeteries across Cook and Lake counties, he said. When the archdiocese started keeping statistics in the 1980s, cremations accounted for only about 5 percent of the people laid to rest in Catholic cemeteries. Today, cremation accounts for 26 percent.
The figure is considerably lower than the state average of 45 percent. Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Chicago-based Cremation Association of North America, said affordability and the desire to personalize the celebration of one's life have driven the rise in cremations. The decline in religious affiliation and the mobility of people who don't have ties to a hometown cemetery also have played a role, she said.
At least three religious traditions strictly forbid cremation: Islam, Orthodox Judaism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But many others have adopted a nuanced view of the practice, much like the Catholic Church.
"Cemeteries have to adjust to this and provide permanent places," Kemmis said. "This is truly the fastest-growing feature that cemeteries are implementing."
Kemmis said that until the 1960s, even the Cremation Association discouraged scattering ashes, citing practical reasons. For example, baseball fans may want their ashes scattered at a ballpark, but the ashes don't stay forever in the turf, she said. Given the regular raking and dragging by groundskeepers during every game, ashes most likely end up in the trash.
"You may think you're scattering on a place where you think that's where my loved one wanted to be permanently, but it doesn't play out practically," she said. "When you throw theology in ... that's additional peace of mind. There's a place for loved ones to mourn you and a place for God to find you and resurrect you."
Louise and Tom Dickey, and their friends Karen and Kurt Koziol, plan to become neighbors after they die. On Monday, both couples lightheartedly purchased tombs for their ashes facing each other across a koi pond in the All Saints cremation garden. Their children will be instructed to take flowers to both burial sites when they're gone.
Karen Koziol took a picture of their new "second home" and sent it to the kids for a chuckle.
"I see how quickly life changes," said Louise Dickey, 64, who works at a Catholic school in Arlington Heights. She has buried both parents in the nearby mausoleum. "I'd prefer to have all the plans in place and prefer not to have my children make all the decisions."