The hole in the floor: the burial of bishops in cathedrals

With Archbishop Philip Hannan’s funeral set for Thursday in New Orleans, the local paper looks at a venerable tradition surrounding the burial of bishops:

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.

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.

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.

On Thursday, when the public gathers around Hannan’s casket, there likely will be no sign that a grave has been prepared for him a few feet away, Kern said.

Earlier, a few workers will have sawn a hole in the sanctuary’s wooden floor, then located an open crypt, one of eight new burial vessels ordered a few years ago by now-retired Archbishop Francis Schulte, Kern said.

Flooring and carpet will be replaced for the funeral Mass, leaving nothing amiss, he said.

Read more. There’s also an excellent gallery of photographs.


  1. The Anglican/Episcopal tradition did not throw the baby of intercessory prayer and pilgrimage out with the baptismal water in its reformation, so it’s no surprise that Anglican and Episcopal cathedrals are home to the remains of the beloved dead. Many US Episcopal parishes follow the English tradition–necessitated by limitations on land for adjacent parish cemeteries–of maintaining crypts and colombaria for the inurnment of parishioners. That same limitation on available cemetery land allowed the lifting of the ban on cremation for English Catholics long before the practice was allowed in other, less land-poor nations.

  2. Just wondering; it seems like someone could design an access to the crypt so that they wouldn’t have to saw a hole in the floor every time a bishop was laid to rest.

  3. Fiergenholt says:

    Of all of my foreign travels, I have spent — by far — more time in England than any other country (although Germany is a close second). One of the striking things you notice about many of the Church of England Churches and Cathedrals (most of which — before the Reformation — were Roman Catholic facilities anyway) is how many prominent folks were buried in crypts inside those places.

    The other thing I find fascinating is that often the largest and most ornate of those historic crypts honor people (both men and women) who no one in the twenty-first century has any reason to want to remember.

    In contrast, the heroes of those older eras who we do want to remember in our own time — some authors, some statesmen, some saints — usually have very modest crypts.

  4. pagansister says:

    Do folks actually end up walking over the places where these folks are buried?

  5. Fiergenholt says:

    re #4 Pagansister

    Sometimes! But it happens in normal graveyards all the time.

  6. pagansister says:

    Fiergenholt, #5: True—but in a graveyard it is hard not to—in a church perhaps it could be avoided. Just wondered. :)

Leave a Comment