How often do you see cemeteries? Do you know, off hand, where the closest one is? Do your children? It is a sad state of affairs when we can’t answer these questions with certainty and, if you’ll allow me to indulge in a few preliminary comments, I’ll tell you why.
One of the best ways to engage literature is to pick a work you want to be shaped by and to read it again and again. I was recently rereading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy with that end in mind, and the following passage struck me:
“But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much more rational philosophical truth in the burial at the crossroads and the stake driven through the body…there is a meaning in burying the suicide apart.”
“….And then I remembered the stake and the crossroads, and the queer fact that Christianity had shown this weird harshness to the suicide. For Christianity had shown a wild encouragement of the martyr. Historic Christianity was accused, not entirely without reason, of carrying martyrdom and asceticism to a point, desolate and pessimistic. The early Christian martyrs talked of death with a horrible happiness. They blasphemed the beautiful duties of the body: they smelt the grave afar off like a field of flowers. All this has seemed to many the very poetry of pessimism. Yet there is the stake at the crossroads to show what Christianity thought of the pessimist.”
It struck me not because of the particular topic but of the more general implication. Regardless of your convictions about the burial of suicides, these remarks demonstrate something powerful, and something contemporary Protestantism (at least in my circles) has begun to forget—our treatment of the dead translates into a meaningful theological statement. And that leads me back to my questions about cemeteries.
As a nation we have radically changed the way we bury our dead. No longer are the dead laid to rest in churchyards (if any of you were able to say that you have regular exposure to graveyards, it is probably because you live near one of these relics of an age gone by). Instead, cemeteries have become special, separate spaces outside of town, usually operating as secular commercial enterprises. I suspect that this is due to Christian abdication. The early Christians were known for their revolutionary practices of caring for the dead of the empire, Christian and pagan alike. In fact they did more than bury the poor, they would worship in the catacombs, in the midst of those they had laid to rest; their ecclesiastical experience was shaped by the presence of the dead. But this practice wasn’t the result of morbid or macabre fixation; it was founded upon the firm knowledge that Christianity is the religion of the Resurrection. Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. Those early Christians were not worshipping in just another kind of landfill, not in a necromancer’s laboratory, but in a nursery, living and worshipping in the midst of reminders that to die is gain and of the hope they have in death. Someone might object that they did so out of expediency; it was, after all, dangerous to declare oneself a Christian, and tombs were as good a hiding place as any. But when it became safe for Christians to worship openly, they came out of the catacombs and brought their dead with them. To this day the term “churchyard” is synonymous with “graveyard” (go ahead, do an image search for each word).
The Church, especially in America, has come a long way from those catacombs—for good and for ill. Does our treatment of the dead still say the same things about us and about or hope? Sadly, I don’t think so; at least not in the same clear and unequivocal voice that it used to. Chiefly because we have little to do with the burial of the dead at all. Large community churches sit on acres and acres of green green grass without a cross or headstone to be seen; small churches go up on small lots and every inch of the limited space is dedicated to parking and a spacious breezeway. Sometimes these decisions could be due to zoning regulations, but cemeteries haven’t been shown to be dangerous since the time of the plague, and one wonders what kind of fruit an enterprising legal petition might yield for interested congregations. Rather, I think space for burial of our dead is simply not on the radar of most church builders anymore, and there is a real danger here.
We live in a culture of death—simply consider the various forms of murder currently allowed under U.S. law—and in order for that culture to thrive and endure, it is essential that the reality of death be as far removed from the public eye as possible. So our local governments regulate against the presence of marked graves in the city where they will play a part in the shaping of our daily experience. So our families ship their dead outside the city gates—like a redheaded stepchild sent off to boarding school—where they won’t have to see or think about them more than a few times a year, less if they’re lucky. Most aborted infants receive no grave at all (some end up in landfills), but hiding the dead isn’t just a means of covering up atrocities.
We marginalize the elderly rather than revere them and include them in family and community life. In a culture obsessed with the promises of artificial immortality (surgery, fitness, etc), the aging and deteriorating among us represent an unwelcome reminder of the reality of death. So much more so the already-dead. So we marginalize them too and, in her reluctance to plant her dead before the public eye, the Church has gone right along with it. This general feeling may also account for the rise in and defense of cremations, even among Christians. I don’t intend to argue that Scripture explicitly condemns cremation, but it doesn’t need to. Destroying the dead is just another means of hiding the dead, and cremation is a hold over from the Greco-Roman culture that believed in the immortality of the soul and nothing else. When we hold firmly to the belief that not our souls only but our bodies and all of creation will be raised and remade, cremation is quickly revealed as an inferior statement about our hope.
Chesterton reminds us that Christianity is the way of the paradox. Paradoxically, our culture of death will only begin to change when confronted with death. And the grave is the surest means of putting death on display, the surest means of exposing the lies our culture tells about life and death and the life to come. Knowing that, we should remember, too, that culture flows out of the Church, like streams of water from Ezekiel’s Temple. Before the dead will return to the life of the community at large, they must return to the community of the saints. Every Christian grave is a promise. What a statement it would be to your children if they passed through a cloud of resting witnesses every time they entered into the house of the Lord. What a statement it would be to the City of Man if they once again saw the people of God surrounding themselves with the dead, as if they knew some powerful secret.
My wife and I know a wonderful family that rises early on Easter mornings to sing hymns in the graveyard at sunrise. They begin their celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection there, in that nursery of the new creation, because of the promise that those graves represent. They are reminders that we are more than atoms eventually returning to the void, mourning as those who have no hope; they are reminders that our dust and bones will live again. So, bring out your dead!