Consider this… Visiting a Cemetery
As the liturgical year in the Church draws to a close with the feast of Christ the King coming up on November 20th, our attention as a Church is drawn to the last things. Last week, we celebrated the feast of All Saints, reminding us that our journey on earth too, if lived out faithfully, culminates in this heavenly destiny. We also prayed for All Souls, and continue to do so throughout this month, knowing that it is a great work of mercy to pray for and bury the dead. In this regard, Fr. Bryan spoke of the opportunity and need for prayer in the last bulletin column. In the readings of this weekend, there is a definitive focus on one’s life after death and on the hope of the resurrection.
It is natural for human beings to resist the notion of death in our minds and hearts. In this experience is an element of loss, of things unknown, of powerlessness, true enough. Stripped of Trick-or-Treating, decorations, and parties, Halloween originating out of these feast days is scary in this literal way in which we are forced to confront the reality of death and the unavoidable fact that all of us will one day pass away from this world. Moments like these force us to reflect upon life as a whole and its meaning. If we push away these thoughts and refuse to contemplate them, we will find ourselves living under a destructive and unhealthy illusion. The Church doesn’t shy away from this challenging reality, but also continuously, annually reminds us of the hope that is held in store for us through our faith, that at death, life is changed and not ended. The task before all of us in this month then is in some ways is to learn to befriend death. If you watched Coco per Fr. Bryan’s recommendation, you’ll have been exposed to the Mexican tradition of Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, which is the ritualized way of befriending death in that culture and remaining connected to their families.
Growing up, I can remember going to the cemetery from time to time and thinking of it as an eerie place. But as I grow in faith, I have become more comfortable going to the cemetery as I think about the people whose funerals and burials I’ve celebrated, and have even developed a certain fondness for visiting my deceased relatives. I guess I would say that I feel more connected to them as if I can reach out to them and find a peacefulness in my heart as a result of going. I would also say that while I am there, I am reminded of the bigger picture, for as a universal Church, we (the Church Militant) are indeed connected to people of all times and all places, including all those who have gone before us (the Church Penitent) and those saints already in heaven (the Church Triumphant). Visiting a cemetery has helped me accept and befriend death, and find my place in the grand scheme of things. You can sit in silence there, or use your own words to pray, or if you are looking for some guidance, there is a prayer service you can use that is found in the Book of Blessings and online, appropriately entitled: “Order of Visiting a Cemetery.”
There is an old story between rabbis, in which the younger one asks his elder: “Why does it say to put the words of Scriptures on our hearts and not in them.” The elder rabbi replied: “We put these words upon our hearts, so that when our hearts break, the words sink in.” There are many comforting words and insights of faith that sink into our hearts as they are broken open by the experience of death. For example, the prayer of the Church at one’s graveside is helpful: “Lord Jesus Christ, by your own three days in the tomb, you hallowed the graves of all who believe in you and so made the grave a sign of hope that promises resurrection, even as it claims our mortal bodies. Grant that our brother/sister may sleep here in peace until you awaken him/her to glory, for you are the resurrection and the life. Then he/she will see you face to face and in your light will see light and know the splendor of God, for you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.” God loved his own son through the experience of death and the tomb to new life in the resurrection; He will do the same for us (check out 2 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
I would encourage you to visit St. Mary’s cemetery or another cemetery sometime this month to pray for your loved ones and those who have gone before us. As we stop avoiding and confront these last things, may our prayers, traditions, and cemetery visits all help us to come to trust in God’s power over all things, and know His abiding peace.