Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Sermon for a Country Cemetery Decoration Day

Decoration days are a custom that I only discovered after coming to rural Middlesex County as a pastor. Medway Cemetery is about 15 km north of London, Ontario. The cemetery board takes turns asking local clergy to speak.

After getting the invitation I came across Joseph Bottum's excellent essay
"Death and Politics" in the June/July issue of First Things and stole some of his ideas. I'm always aware of our tendency to fall into ancestor worship at these sorts of gatherings, and I hope Bottum saved me from that trap.

The cemetery is small and beautiful, well-shaded and with two sounds bounded by a creek. Bless them, the organizers had a sound system so I could be heard by a long semi-circle of folks in lawnchairs.

A Talk for the Medway Cemetery Decoration Day
24 June, 2007

In my three years here as a pastor I’ve been asked to attend several cemetery services and decoration days, and of course we have our own in my parish of St. George’s every July. I confess however that I didn’t know much about this cemetery before George Nixon invited me to come, but I’ve learned something about the importance of these places. I know that many of you who come to these services have two or more generations of family and ancestors laid to rest here. In cemeteries throughout this part of the county I’ve seen the same names – names like Robson, Hodgins, O’Neil, and Telfer – names of the living, names of the dead. I’ve met folks who no longer live here but who come back to these services because, like you, they have roots here.

I have to say that I envy people like you who have roots. Some of who know me may have heard me say that I grew up in an army family, so we moved frequently when I was a kid. Even after he left the army my dad was never that interested in putting down roots for very long. Perhaps my father didn’t need roots because he was the son of immigrants, but as for myself, I’ve always envied folks who could come to places like this and say "These are my people, this is my place".

One of the things that puzzles me about our world today is that fewer and fewer people seem to need roots. People don’t seem to need community like our ancestors did. Clubs, service groups, even bowling leagues are in decline as people choose alternate friendships and groups on the internet. One of the things that fascinates me is the growing popularity of "green funerals" where there is no service, no marked grave, nothing to show that a person ever was. It leaves one to wonder, if people can vanish without a trace, how will we know who they were, what they did, and what they stood for? If a society can forget the generations that went before us, how will we know what values those past generations stood for, and what we owe to them?
The people who are buried in cemeteries such as this were not famous or celebrities, but we know something of who they were and we know what they stood for. We know that they believed in hard work, that they carved farms out of the bush and broke the land and built towns. We know that they believed in families. They cared for their aged parents and grandparents and laid them to rest. All too often they laid they had to bury their own children. They carved the names of parents and children on these stones because they were worth remembering, and they set aside plots for the end of their own days. When they in their turn were laid to rest, the passed on their farms and businesses to their children, along with their love and wisdom. They gave us land to tend, and they gave us their graves to tend.

Tending these graves and these cemeteries is not just a job for a few members of a board. It’s a responsibility that we all share. Tending a grave and caring for a cemetery is a very real way of saying that we take seriously the values and responsibilities that we inherit from those who have gone before us. The cemetery is one of the glues that holds a society together. It reminds us of what we have been given from the past, and what we will have to pass on one day.

Let me end by speaking about one more thing that cemeteries remind us of. Why is it as children that we were frightened of these places, especially at night? Why are some adults still afraid of cemeteries, even of peaceful beautiful places like this one? They are frightened, I think, because these places remind us that we are not immune to death. Perhaps one of the attractions of those anonymous "green" funerals that I mentioned earlier is that they leave nothing behind to scare us. We don’t like to dwell on death, which is why we’ve moved from the family bedroom and the front parlour to the hospital and the funeral home, and done our best to banish it from view. Come to a place like this, however, and you can’t look around without being reminded that we are not immortal, that we, too, have an end to our days. As the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer reminds us, "in the midst of life, we are in death".

Our ancestors knew this, but they did not despair and they did not deny this reality. Our ancestors had hope. They created these churchyards as a sign of hope and comfort. See this place and remember it, they seem to say, because God sees it and God will remember it. The cemetery is a reminder that God knows everything, including the names and the resting places of those who have gone before us, and he will not forget them. As the Psalm says, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" (Ps 116:15). Our ancestors knew that the resurrection of Jesus was not a random event, but it was only the first resurrection. Saint Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that "For as in Adam all die, thus also in Christ all shall be made alive (1 Cor 15:22). The cemetery is not only a place of rest, but it’s a place of expectation, a kind of waiting room for those who trust that God will open these graves and waken these dead, and they, being faithful, will have nothing to fear from God’s judgement.

The word "gospel" is from a Greek word meaning "good news". For gospel people who have inherited the faith of our fathers (and of our mothers), the cemetery is a place of good news. The cemetery tells us that we need not fear death, because nothing can separate us from the love of God. The cemetery reminds us that the ordinary names on these tombstones -- names that are well-known to us and faded names of people known only to God -- are written in God’s book of life, and these people will be called to take their place in heaven on the last day. That was the hope that sustained our ancestors in their last days, and like all other good things from the past that they have given us, they pass this hope on to us. May we who gather here today share and live that hope, showing that hope to a world that, having no hope, wants to forget death.

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