Walking through cemeteries, I have learned over the years, is a lesson in awareness. We are reminded, of course, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. But we also learn the power of quiet, of stillness, of non-busyness. It’s hard to hurry through a graveyard, and why would we want to? If we’re in a cemetery that bears the remains of our own ancestors, we become perhaps all the more acutely aware that we are not alone, that our little, short lives are not the be-all and end-all, that we are a flash in the pan of the flintlock rifle of human existence. We are merely a thread in the larger strand of life that includes the fibers of so many other lives.
I did not come to this awareness early or easily. I grew up in North St. Louis very near the huge and infamous Calvary (Catholic) and Bellefontaine (Protestant) cemeteries, home to massive Gothic mausoleums and St. Louis’ most notorious ghosts, or so we believed, fueled by Saturday matinees at the nearby Rio movie theater. The two adjacent burial grounds, separated by the (obviously) haunted Calvary Drive (beware of Hitchhiking Annie!), contain the graves of civil war soldiers, cholera victims, and a bevy of St. Louis’ and America’s elite, including explorer William Clark and Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman. In short, this was territory ripe for scaring the holy bajeezus out of 12-year-old boys. I stayed away, even though we all knew where the gaps were in the tall, wrought-iron fence.
My love for cemeteries came later and was a gift of my wife and, more specifically, from her mother, Carrol, a gifted and prolific genealogist and historical researcher who has spent many, many days searching for the truth of history in the faded stones of Missouri’s rural cemeteries. For that gift I will be forever thankful. I learned there was nothing to be afraid of and much, much to learn.
So I enjoy a stroll through a good cemetery as often as possible, whether or not I’m visiting departed friends or family. I go to my parents’ grave infrequently, I have to admit. I like to think about them when I’m there, of course, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t “find” them there. The souls of my parents and several sets of grandparents are not hanging around Memorial Park Cemetery waiting for me to show up.
In Ronald Rolheiser’s beautiful book, “The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality,” the Canadian Oblate priest asks this poignant question: “How do we find our loved ones after death separates them from us?”
The answer lies in what we have been celebrating these past 8 days of the Christmas season – the incarnation of Christ. It lies in the Word of God made flesh and living among us, not just 2,000 years ago but right now. As Christians, as believers in this miracle and gift of incarnation, we participate in the ongoing life of Jesus “among us,” and not even our physical death separates us from that life.
It all began, Rolheiser writes, on that first Easter morning. Mary Magdala rushes to the tomb hoping to anoint the dead body of her friend, only to find it empty and an angel who says to her: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Rolheiser writes:
Curious words? Not really. In effect, the angel is telling her that cemeteries are not the real place where we find people who have passed from this world but are now alive in a new way. We do not find our deceased love ones in their graves, good though it be to visit graves. Invisible angels sit there, at the graves of our loved ones, and send us back into life to seek for them at other places…. We will meet the ones we can no longer touch when we put ourselves in situations where their souls once flourished…. Simply put, we find our deceased loved ones by entering into life, in terms of love and faith, in the way that was most distinctive to them…when we pour ourselves into life as they did.
If we believe that the ones we love are, in fact, alive in Christ and part of the communion of saints and the ongoing word and flesh of “God with Us,” then we must seek them where we can find them and where they flourish, not among the dead.
I find my mother when I hold a child, any child, for her life was a life of caregiving and selfless love.
I find my father in the quiet of a good book or a walk through the woods, two places where his restless and often desperate heart found some peace.
I find my paternal grandmother in a simple hummed melody or a game of rummy, two ways in which she soothed my young fears.
I find my brother in the faces of his four beautiful daughters and their energetic pack of children (all boys but one!), the fruit of his life and work and sacrifice. In their presence he was always most alive, so why search elsewhere now?
Each person, Rolheiser reminds us, shapes not only his or her own life and that of those around him or her, but the very presence of God for others, the continuing “word becoming flesh.” We are Christ for those around us. That is both our call and our gift as Christians, as people of the Word.
Happy New Year.