Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, December 30, 2016

In praise of cemeteries

The recent communication from the Roman Catholic teaching office (magisterium) regarding Christian burial is refreshing. It is refreshing because, while being sensitive to current practices, it clearly sets out traditional Christian teaching in a way that people--whether Christians or not--need to hear. Traditional Christian burial is traditional for theological reasons. The Vatican document observes that modern practices, such as cremation before a service and scattering of ashes veer into 1) individualism, 2) pantheism, and 3) syncretism. The specific biblical message of the resurrection of the body is thereby lost, even negated. (Cremation after the funeral service of the church is not proscribed by Roman Catholic teaching, though burial is still preferred.)

This does not mean that disposal of bodies or ashes in unconventional ways in individual circumstances are inevitably gross violations of Christian teachings. If such practices become the norm, however, a serious dilution of Christian doctrine will ensue (and, indeed, demonstrably already has ensued). Here is the link to the Vatican document:,_cremation/1267621

I particularly like this passage from the document:
Through the practice of burying the dead in cemeteries, in churches or their environs, Christian tradition has upheld the relationship between the living and the dead and has opposed any tendency to minimize, or relegate to the purely private sphere, the event of death and the meaning it has for Christians.
Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia

I have loved cemeteries ever since I was a child. The old cemetery in my home town of Franklin, Virginia, is not especially pretty--it's flat, largely tree-less, and too close to High Street--but a great many of my relatives and so many dear friends of my family, are buried there, and so I cherish it. (All four of our children's grandparents are buried there!) When I was growing up, it was a major ritual to decorate the graves with flowers on Memorial Day. I used to accompany my aunt on these pilgrimages, and over the years my sense of being a part of a community of the living and the dead has greatly increased and strengthened. When my mother was buried there by my father in 2007, it was an enormous symbolic comfort to me to have them surrounded by my father's parents and sister (the aunt of Memorial Day), so many other relatives, and so many people that I'd known growing up in Franklin--including my Sunday School teachers! It was as if they were alive still, but not so much as individuals--rather, as a community.

My late beloved teacher and mentor, the great Pauline scholar J. Louis Martyn, told me of going to the cemetery in Texas where his brother and other relatives were buried. I think he had not been there for a long time. He told me, looking thoughtfully off into space,  "I thought it was going to be a place of death. Instead, walking around, I found that it was a place of life."

My great-great grandparents
in the University of Virginia cemetery
I had the same experience of going for the first time as an older adult to the old University cemetery (as it's called) in Charlottesville a few years ago. My grandparents, great-grandparents, and many other relatives (whose names and stories I know well from reading their letters) are buried there.  So were numerous storied names from earlier days at the University of Virginia--names of professors and others that my grandparents spoke of almost daily. It was a joyful, soul-strengthening experience for me. My mother once said that going to the University cemetery was, for her, "like going to a party." A place of life!

Best of all are the churchyard cemeteries. The best funeral I have attended in years was one where the congregation filed out of the church building directly into the churchyard where the coffin was lowered into the consecrated ground, accompanied by the prayers and hymns of the church. This is rarely possible now, since most churchyard gravesites are filled up, but for those who know the histories of the congregations, these burying grounds are precious. I have recently visited Christ Episcopal Church in Cooperstown, NY. When the rector steps out of his kitchen door to walk over to the church building, he is greeted by six generations of the family of James Fenimore Cooper (of Last of the Mohicans fame), who were loyal members of the parish. My friend Henry S. F. Cooper, who died last year, is now buried with his Episcopal ancestors. I find that very hopeful and strengthening.

New Castle, Delaware is a tiny, authentically unspoiled colonial town prized by the select few who know of it. The centerpiece is Immanuel Episcopal Church on the Green. Imagine my emotion when I found, in its cemetery, the grave of the pediatrician who saved the life of our infant daughter Elizabeth! His grave is surrounded by those of his forebears and the parishioners who knew them. What an incredibly affirming discovery!

Whenever I pass a graveyard on my walks, I stop in. I look for the oldest grave and read some of the inscriptions, and I try to imagine the lives of the people there. It makes me feel part of a great continuum. For a Christian, one of the joys of visiting old cemeteries is reading the biblical inscriptions and prayerful commendations on many of the headstones. It is jarring, today, to move from the old sections of cemeteries to the more recent graves and see the stones with pictures of golf, fishing, sailing, and other hobbies, as if the deceased were not part of a comprehensive community at all, but defined and remembered only by their individual pastimes.

The great writer Joseph Mitchell famously wrote of his fondness for cemeteries. He said that whenever he was feeling down, he would visit a favorite cemetery and come away invigorated. I can understand that. Somehow a cemetery communicates a sense of shared humanity and one's belonging to it--not to mention the overarching providence of God. A place of life!


Here is a list of the most beautiful cemeteries I have visited, in order of beauty (in my opinion) :
1) Hollywood in Richmond, on the heights overlooking the James River
2) Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, with vast numbers of walking paths, majestic trees, and an eye-popping ravine
3) the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, with surely the most lovingly maintained flowers and plantings, and the most elegant tombstones (the travel writer H. V. Morton thought it was the most beautiful in the world) 
Honorable mentions: Essex, Connecticut alongside the Connecticut River, especially lovely in fall; and Greenwood Cemetery in Rye, NY, with ancient trees and the burial place of the great preacher Theodore Parker Ferris.
The Protestant Cemetery in Rome

The Protestant Cemetery in Rome

Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto is beloved by joggers, strollers (of both kinds), and dog-walkers

Just as I was preparing this blog post, a lovely article about family cemeteries appeared in The New York Times, with an endearing photo of a family in their cemetery in Cartersville, Virginia.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Post-election 2016: The church is now in for the long haul

Well, the status confessionis has passed. No, actually, it has morphed into something else which will prove to be far more challenging. My blog of July 15 ("Words to the Church.....") identifying the status confessionis, has been visited almost four times more than anything else I have ever posted, but now it is out of date ( although I believe it is still essentially true and worth reading). I confess that when I wrote it, I did not think that Donald Trump could win the election, so I was just hoping that the church would find itself on the "right" side. Now, we find ourselves in a new universe, so to speak. "New occasions teach new duties." The new status confessionis requires something very much more courageous, very much more carefully thought out, much more prolonged than simply voting (self-righteously) one way or the other.

When in Atlanta recently, my husband and daughter and I had lunch with the senior pastor of the enormous, prominent Peachtree United Methodist Church, the Rev. Bill Britt. We discussed the election. I heard two important things. First, as Dr. Britt said, "I do not put my trust in any president." Yellow-dog Democrats and Obama enthusiasts like myself need to be reminded of that every day. Our ultimate trust is in no earthly leader, but in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Pantocrator of the universe, "the One who shall come to be our Judge"--the great theme of this Advent season.

The second thing I learned is that Peachtree Methodist did something very important at election time. Under Britt's leadership, the church published an impressive booklet for its members, handsomely designed and printed, called, simply, "Politics." It's an Advent devotional offering, and it is quite unlike the ones they've done previously, because it was produced a month early instead of their usual, more typical Advent-Christmas booklet of daily devotions. What an audacious thing to do, to send out such a book with the title "Politics"! Wouldn't you think that would split your congregation into fragments? Well, not if the leadership is strong and trusted. There is not a single word in the booklet about candidates or political parties, but the message is clear: discrimination, prejudice, recklessness, and lies are not only anti-American, but anti-Christian.

There is so much that can and should be said from the pulpit and in the church classrooms, now and in the foreseeable future. What can we, as Christians, be doing?

1) We can stop throwing around words like "racist," "sexist," "bigot," "homophobe," "Islamophobe." Surely one of the most misbegotten moments in Hillary Clinton's campaign was the use of these words to describe the "basket of deplorables." In the sight of our righteous God we are all deplorable. We can be guided by David Brooks in one of his many fine columns:  We need to stop demonizing everyone who voted for Trump and try to understand them, one by one, "even as we have been fully understood"  by God in Jesus Christ (I Cor. 13:12)

2) We can go out of our way to show kindness, forbearance, and respect to those who are different from us. We can come alongside those who have suffered from attacks and slurs based on racial, ethnic, or religious identity. We can organize or participate in gatherings and groups that seek to foster greater understanding. We can offer more support to organizations that will now have to expand their operations greatly on behalf of Constitutional, civil, and human rights

3) We can talk to our congregations and Christian friends about the importance of educating children at a early age to distinguish between news and propaganda. I remember my mother beginning to teach me this from a very early age. My paternal grandmother told me I should be using a certain soap because she "heard it on the radio." My mother was not crazy about her mother-in-law, to be sure, but she took the opportunity to instruct me that not everything on the radio was true; some of it was advertising, and I had to learn the difference. I was really young then, perhaps only five or six, but the lesson stayed with me permanently. Similarly, we need to teach our children at an early age that the perils of believing something because "I saw it on Facebook" or "I saw it on Twitter" needs to be indelibly etched in their minds. The word "discernment" has been somewhat diminished since it was appropriated by ecclesiastical bureacracies, but here is its true significance: the ability to discern false from true.

This is only the beginning of a list of imperatives for Christian teaching, into the foreseeable future and beyond.

My previous most-read post on status confessionis and the political crisis is not completely outdated by any means and can be found here: