Death is a reality we prefer not to entertain at length. We stow it away, like old books in the attic. Infrequently some of us are confronted with the expiration of a chicken, or perhaps a dog. Observing this cycle among the animals is gentle preparation for seeing living, loving people succumb to the dust. There is a painful but necessary toughening of the mind and softening of the heart that must take place.
A cemetery is an eternally sobering place. It is history in its most grave attire. No piercing trumpet blasts, flashing swords or fluttering banners here; just stones, arranged in that melancholy orderliness, laden with a weighty significance. There is nothing different between these stones and others, except perhaps that they are engraved—some are polished. Who knows now where these stones once lay? Nature did not place them here in such a businesslike fashion. Maybe that one was a wind-blasted sentry on a mountaintop. Maybe this one was quietly listening to a brook washing over it, season after season. Maybe that one lay face up in a field, damp with the dew and seared by the sun. Whatever their silent history, they have now been brought here as undecaying monuments, meekly marking the resting places of a less hardy race.
There is something dimly ironic about a sunlit cemetery, when all the flowers lift their heads up bravely and the verdant green fairly sings with health. A cemetery is properly an overcast place, where the wind blows with a slight chill and the flowers flutter mournfully next to the cold stone. It is then that the visitor is properly confronted with the woes of existence.
I was there not too long ago, a suitably dreary day in southwest Missouri. We drove in slowly, a miniature procession, staring blankly out the windows. Some of the deceased had the fortune (or misfortune, as it may be,) of having a larger or taller chunk of granite placed over them than the ones over their fellows, but it is a pitiful game—a feeble attempt to extend the caste distinctions long after everyone knows they have ceased. Yes, here man’s vanity has finally been leveled, for he lies exactly four feet down, just like his neighbor, six feet over. Here men can no longer say they are better than their neighbors. (Not because it is the truth, but because they cannot speak. I am sure that if they could speak, they would be comparing caskets.)
The grave we had come to see was the freshest on the green, so fresh that you could still clearly see where the sod patch was seamed back in. A temporary marker was in place, a small plastic stand that lacked the solemn finality of stone and spoke of recent grief. There was a lone stand of flowers—yellow—his favorite color.
No doubt to many visitors, this man will seem ordinary, another faceless name amidst scores of others. But to those who knew him, or even knew of him, it is different. Death by disease must be the hardest way to die. In accidents, there is a sense of the heroic, and a merciful swiftness. To die by old age is peaceful, expected. But to be diseased in the flower of your age, at the best combination of your physical and mental power, is very agony. But he kept his faith to the end—“though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” In life and in death he was a striking testimony to the goodness of God, and left behind a legacy that is rarely equaled. We bowed our heads in reverence, thanking God, and asking that we might somehow be fashioned into worthy vessels to preserve the wine that had been spilled there at our feet. It is something to stand before the grave of a man who would never boast about his casket.
Somewhere a bell was tolling in its droning, metallic way. Some dogs were playing beyond the fence. A house on the corner was under construction, and suddenly it looked very fragile. Time seems both slowed down and sped up in a cemetery: slowed down inside, and sped up outside. I saw that house fast-forwarded through a hundred years, it’s paint peeling and cracking, it’s floors twisting and creaking. I saw its occupants coming and going, buying, selling, hurrying, all of them eventually silenced by the grave and some of them, no doubt, laid here in this quiet place.
By and by we left, as there is little inducement to relaxation in a cemetery. One feels outnumbered—out of place.
I have been called upon recently to explain cemeteries to an inquisitive four-year-old. It has surprised me how difficult an assignment this is; most of my answers seem unsatisfactory for her, though I have attempted to be as matter-of-fact as possible (without sounding flippant, of course). I guess to a four-year-old, it is hard to imagine anything ever being any different than it is right now. But it is the sober truth, and the sober will consider.
Images courtesy of danny.oz.au and ddickerson.igc.org