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:
http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2016/10/25/vatican_issues_new_document_on_christian_burial,_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!

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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. 
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/your-money/family-cemeteries-bind-generations-for-remembrance-and-tax-reasons.html?_r=0