Presbyterian pastor’s account tells of a moving ceremony held earlier this month
by Hans Hallundbaek | Special to Presbyterian News Service
The commemoration for All Souls’ Day, also known as All Saints’ Day, is a long-held tradition to honor family members who have passed. It is a tradition which takes different forms in human cultures around the world.
In the Northern Westchester Township of Bedford, New York, members of the community have in recent years extended this tradition to include a little-known cemetery located in their midst tucked away between the two female prisons, Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facilities. These two prisons together hold about 600 women and share the prison cemetery dating back to the early 1900s. About 100 graves hold the remains of women and children who died while incarcerated without families to take care of their remains. The cemetery has for decades largely been forgotten by the busy world surrounding it.
On a cold November morning in 2019, a small group of three clergy and a few community members invited by the local Interfaith Prison Partnership organization gathered at the cemetery for a first All Souls’ Day commemoration, with the aim of bringing this burial place out of obscurity.
This year, 18 local clergy were part of a gathering of more than 50 community members who came together on All Souls’ Day to acknowledge the sacredness of this place and to offer prayers of remembrance for those buried in this peaceful site anchored by a magnificent crucifix in a tree-shaded corner.
All Souls’ Day was established a millennium ago by St. Odilo (962-1049) of Cluny, France, as an annual Nov. 2 commemoration for those departed. The concept was soon adopted throughout the Western church.
Cemeteries are sacred reflective places where one can seek refuge from the struggles and misery of the world, whether there to visit family gravesites or seek peace in a quiet secluded place. A prison cemetery adds an extra dimension as a resting place for individuals whose family either abandoned them or were too poor to afford burial in their home community. Such reflections deepen when we consider the children of the incarcerated women who may have died in birth or at an early age, while innocent of any crime their mothers may have committed.
Until recently, gravestones in most New York State prison cemeteries displayed only the prisoner number at the time of incarceration. Today the Taconic prison cemetery is an exception, thanks to a long-time dedicated volunteer chaplain, the Franciscan Sister Antonia Maguire, who late in the last century visited the cemetery weekly for prayer. While there, she painstakingly took down the identification numbers on all the tombstones and eventually succeeded in convincing the Department of Corrections to release the names of the individuals buried there so she could make name plaques for all the graves.
But change has come. Earlier this year, a statewide policy has been implemented by which gravestones on all the prison cemeteries in New York State will have a plaque with the full name of the interred person, as well as their date of birth and date of death.
The community outreach to this Northern Westchester prison cemetery is now an established annual tradition in the Town of Bedford. Town Supervisor Ellen Calves says, “I am proud of the many steps our town has taken to enhance understanding and seize mutually beneficial opportunities. As a town leader, I attend the annual All Souls’ Day service to pray for those who have died and been buried in the prison cemetery.
“Before the Adopt-a-Prison concept came about and the town formed the Prison Relations Advisory Committee, I do not believe the town leaders and community felt they needed to acknowledge the existence of the two correctional facilities within our borders,” Calves said. “Now that we have these relationships, and no other agenda but to understand one another and enhance relations, we know that many good things can come from knowing about all the people working and living in and connected to the prisons.”
The prison outreach in the Town of Bedford is an inspired combination of the national Mathew 25 movement by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the local Adopt-A-Prison concept initiated by Interfaith Prison Partnership in 2019. This concept was also embraced by then-Bedford Town Supervisor and now New York State Assemblyperson Chris Burdick, who ended his remarks at the cemetery event by saying, “It is right that we today restore the dignity of names for those who are interred here.”
Deacon Cliff Calanni, chaplain at the two facilities who presided over the All Souls’ Day event, closed the commemoration with a moving ritual of sprinkling holy water on the gravesites. After the ritual, attendees helped place white gardenias on each grave, expressing the hope this tradition might inspire similar outreach activity and events across the country.
The United States is a world leader in incarceration, with more than 1,500 state and federal prisons throughout the nation. Most places of worship have a prison and perhaps also a prison cemetery within a 30-minute drive.
Such a faith-based outreach to “the least of these” is a main theme in the recently published book, “Reforming Criminal Justice: A Christian Proposal,” by Matthew T. Martens, who reminds us of the biblical admonition to love your neighbor, suggesting it is not an option, but an obligation.
The Rev. Dr. Hans Hallundbaek, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), is a co-founder of both Rehabilitation through the Arts and the Interfaith Prison Partnership, an outreach of Hudson River Presbytery. He is an adjunct instructor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Marist College. He lives in Katonah, New York.
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