Editor’s note: Much beloved Dave Belanger, the longtime manager of Catholic cemeteries for the Anchorage Archdiocese, passed away on the morning of Good Friday (April 3, 2015) after a long struggle with cancer. Below is a Catholic Anchor article which appeared in 2007 featuring Dave and his wife Priscilla who both spent countless hours burying the dead and caring for those who were left behind.
Wasilla couple finds life’s calling in burying the dead (Article from November 2007)
By JOEL DAVIDSON
At first, it may seem unusual the way Dave and Priscilla Belanger, both 69 years old, light up when the conversation turns to death and graveyards.
But this husband and wife team believe they were put on earth, in part, to dig graves, bury the dead and share their hope that someday all those bodies will rise again.
Nine years ago, the tall bearded man and his compassionate wife started managing Catholic cemeteries for the Anchorage Archdiocese. Since 1999, they’ve laid to rest the ashes and bodies of more than 100 people and helped many left behind deal with their losses.
As facilities manager for the archdiocese, part of Dave’s job includes helping people find or reserve burial plots from several archdiocesan gravesites in Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley. He is also the day-to-day manager of the archdiocese’s Sacred Heart Cemetery in Wasilla. His wife Priscilla pitches in countless volunteer hours.
When someone dies, loved ones contact the Belangers to secure a gravesite. The Belangers help navigate burial planning, gravesite selection and monument design and instillation. They also assist those who want to plan for the future by securing gravesites in advance. But they say their most important task is spiritual – to offer hope in the face of overwhelming despair.
“You wonder what you were put on this earth for sometimes and I guess maybe this is part of it – to help other people in this way,” Priscilla said last month, as she and her husband walked past graves at Sacred Heart Cemetery. Just a few feet away, lay an empty plot, reserved for them.
In a culture that goes to great lengths to avoid facing death, the Belangers stare it strait in the eyes and work the same dirt where they will one day be buried.
“In Wasilla, we personally dig the hole, close it back up, lower the casket and put the headstone on,” Dave said. During the summer, they also mow the grass and water the flowers.
“For my wife and I, it has been one of the most rewarding and satisfying ministries,” he said.
SHAPED BY DEATH
Regular encounters with the end of life have given the Belangers an uncommon perspective.
“It has made me more relaxed and accepting of it,” Priscilla explained. “Dying is a part of life. It is an extension to go onto another phase.”
They both acknowledge, however, that death is never easy – there is always a measure of awkwardness when meeting with survivors.
“You can’t prepare yourself to do it. It just sort of happens at the time,” Priscilla said.
Often times, their work with those who are grieving extends well beyond the final burial.
Priscilla recalled a woman who recently lost her baby. The Belangers helped her select and install a monument for the child in Wasilla.
Then on a recent Sunday, when Priscilla was serving as a eucharistic minister at Sacred Heart Church, she saw the woman coming down the aisle to receive communion.
“She happened to come up in my line and I could see she was crying,” Priscilla recalled. “I knew her name so when I gave her the cup I could speak her name personally, which makes you feel a lot closer to the person.”
After Mass, she gave the woman a big hug.
“When it’s appropriate, you know what to do and how to respond,” Priscilla explained.
Dave said he often tries to lift people’s spirits through a combination of compassion and humor.
“But there is no pattern or plan,” he said. “We sure had no plan about how to go about this when we started – It’s just loving them that’s all.”
The Belangers never planned to become cemeterians. The doors opened in 1999, however, when then Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley asked them to help bury a man who had donated a tract of land in Wasilla to become a future archdiocesan cemetery. The Belangers accepted the task and from there began shaping forested land into Sacred Heart Cemetery.
Woven throughout the Belanger’s work is a Christian hope in the bodily resurrection and a firm belief that death is not the end.
A large empty cross rises from the center of Sacred Heart Cemetery as a physical reminder of this belief.
“The cross is empty. The spikes are still in it but there is no body,” Dave explained.
Below the cross a Scripture passage reads, “He is risen, he is not here.”
“The message there is that there is more, there is hope,” Dave said. “When people see that, they may have tear stained faces but that cross is a hope to them.”
The hope of resurrection is part and parcel of a traditional Catholic burial, Dave explained.
“There is usually a Catholic Mass and full respect for the remains and a blessing of the casket,” he said. The focus on the finality of death, leads to the next step, which is a hand off to eternal life, he added.
“The tie into resurrection brings the reality that this was a person we knew but they are now motionless and have gone on to their eternal reward,” he said.
In an increasingly secular society, that message is often lost or discarded, which makes it all the more important to affirm, Dave added.
“The glory of this handing over, right to the final blessing of the grave and the handing over to eternal life is very different from a toast or a celebration in a bar,” he said. “It is a formalized and spiritualized farewell.”
The Belangers said non-Catholics are also welcome to be buried in all of archdiocesan burial plots, either in Wasilla or in Anchorage. The only requirement is that they be buried according to a recognizable Christian tradition, which affirms the resurrection of the body, Dave explained.
He said Catholic teaching also states that cremation is a valid form of burial so long as the ashes are buried in one identifiable spot with the affirmation that the body will one day resurrect. Dave said he now deals with cremated remains about 60 percent of the time.
After more than 100 burials, the Belangers have noticed that the process is often life changing for people.
“The event itself – the complete Mass, no cutting corners – the liturgy, the formal dress, the slow procession to the cemetery and the graveside service is all a countdown,” Dave said. “Everyone knows that ultimately dirt will be put over that casket and it’s a waker-upper. Often, by burial time, there is a realization that there is a master plan. We are not in charge. When you see that realization, sometimes it makes you shiver, to witness it.”