I remember noticing my first cemetery as a very young child and asking my mother what it was. I couldn’t believe they buried people. I was horrified. I felt so sorry for them. My mom said to stop crying, that the dead people in the graves didn’t care and didn’t even know they were dead probably. She said to be glad they didn’t have to suffer anymore. I was not convinced. For one thing I was sure they were lonely and cold under there. How could they not notice being lonely and cold and dead? How could anyone just walk by without thinking about that or trying to help?
Later on, as we all do, I experienced some people I loved being buried. After that cemeteries seemed even more like horrible places one should avoid even thinking about, let alone visiting.
In my mid teens I developed a fascination for cemeteries. They were places where I wasn’t supposed to be, that had strict rules of etiquette it seemed fun to break, and were therefore irresistible to me. I remember running around with a group of other punks in Austin all day once, and we went to an old cemetery in the evening and had a picnic there. (Yes I was totally, passionately punk. It was the 80s, OK? And how do you rebel against hippie parents I ask you? I am not ashamed.) At dusk we were all awed at the fireflies that came out. By then I agreed with my mom on the surface: the dead were just dead and didn’t know anything. But underneath was still my childhood suspicion that those people under there were sad and cold. The sight of glowing fireflies flitting around the head stones brought up some unaccustomed thoughts for a decidedly atheist 15 year-old to think. I wondered if the lightening bugs represented the spirits of the dead somehow. They certainly looked pretty, a cloud of fairy lights that moved between us and made us all happy and uncomfortable at the same time. It was wondrous.
Eventually I shook my head and didn’t think about it anymore for a long time.
When I met my beloved first husband, Blaze, he was a freshman in the Corps of Cadets at A & M, and, oh dear, a “Roman Catholic.” That’s what he said. “Roman Catholic”. I almost decided not to go out with him after I heard that. A Catholic Corps guy, he was undoubtedly my idealistic opposite. I respected him for his courage, though, in asking out a girl like me. By then I looked kind of post-punk-neo-beatnick. You would have thought that would be repellent to a “CT” or at least make him sure he would be turned down. I figured I was safe; he would hate me, I would hate him, and everything would be OK. Right? So I said yes.
He wanted to take me to lunch. I said, “Why don’t we make it a picnic…in a cemetery?” I was sure this would freak him out but he shocked me by getting all excited. Did we have “an old cemetery here? A cool, Catholic one with statues and stuff?”
I admitted that we did. We figured out who would bring what, and set the date.
Being at that old cemetery with him made me see it through his eyes a little. It was a holy place. He didn’t think it ghoulish or rebellious to have lunch there and to take pictures of the prettiest head stones and of the serenely prayerful faces of the statues. He took a picture of me, too, smiling on the picnic blanket with a crypt behind me. He explained that the bodies of the dead were to be held in reverence, that the dead prayed for us, that we could pray with and for them, and that cemeteries should remind us of Easter and the life to come. I thought he was really weird. But I liked listening to him.
We didn’t hate each other. We started dating. And that Catholic cemetery became a place we went to walk and sit and talk. The sacred surroundings and the quiet provoked discussions about things I had never thought about–things like eternity and Jesus and Mary and what Heaven might be like. He sometimes brought his guitar and I sang with him, or I would bring a bottle of bubbles and enjoy blowing bubbles while we discussed these new topics.
I’m sorry, Catholic Reader, but I used to wear a rosary around my neck sometimes. I knew it offended some people for me to wear it, (they told me so) but I didn’t really care. Sorry about that. (I guess you got me back, didn’t you? I ended up Catholic!) One day, at the cemetery, Blaze asked me in his nonthreatening, gentle way, if I’d like to learn “what you really do with one of those things.” I surprised myself by very much wanting to learn what one really did with a rosary. There and then he taught me my first “Hail Mary.” I never leave that cemetery without praying one with him.
Blaze is buried there now and so is my adored second husband, Bob. I will be buried between them. We’ll be like a little human trinity.
It still feels terribly wrong to us to bury a human being in the ground, and it is. As Christians we know death and burial are a result of a fallen world, and that at the right time God will put an end to that nonsense. We know that death is already conquered by the Passion and Sacrifice of Christ. We look forward to this, “to the life of the world to come”. We believe our bodies will be part of this new world. Our bodies will be resurrected, and glorified as the body of Jesus was, because of His spirit living in us.
Jesus showed us how real the glorified body is by letting His Sacred Wounds be touched, and by eating with His Disciples after He rose from the dead. Through His actions He reassured His friends, as if to say, “See? I’m not a ghost. I’m real, a physical presence. It’s Me. All of Me.“ We will follow Him in this, our bodies and souls reunited. And we will be able to touch and hug the people we have missed for so long.
As Catholics we believe that our bodies are part of who we are. Though the body is seen by some religions as a kind of clothing the soul leaves behind, we don’t see it like that. This, I think, is why we are a little weird about relics of Saints. Come on! You know we are weird about that stuff. St. Catherine of Sienna’s head is in a box with a light in it so you can look at it. There is a bone chip of St. Thomas Aquinas at my church. St. Bernadette is incorrupt in France and lies in a glass casket like Snow White. It does seem a little odd. But it makes sense. These were holy people. And their bodies are holy too. And when we die we will know Our Prince is coming to wake us up and carry us off to His Kingdom. Cemeteries are holy places. They are places to be prayerful.
When I and my daughters visit my mother and grandmother’s graves we usually pray the rosary and ask them to join us. We tend the graves and make sure the head stones are clean. We talk to them. These times are very meaningful for us and I am grateful that our faith gives us so many more possibilities for a visit to a grave besides “paying our respects.” A grave is a place of meeting, a place of prayer. Our visit to a grave is a pilgrimage to honor our love and sorrow, our memory, our hope, and the life of the one buried there–a life which is not ended but changed. We are affirming our faith when we spend time there in that way.
Cemeteries are sacred, because the human body, the human person is sacred. Cemeteries are sacred because God treasures our tears. Every head stone we see there represents so many tears, our tears that in Heaven will be jewels on our garments. I never walk into a silent, still grave yard that I am not conscious of the faith, hope and love it represents and the shoreline of Heaven that it is.
I am thinking of inscribing something new at my husband’s graves. It will say, “Pray with us.”
*Author’s note: Be sure to read the signs and follow the rules of any cemetery respectfully. Sometimes this is hard. At our cemetery there is a big sign with a list of so many things one is not allowed to do, it is comical. But God loves obedience and other grieving people appreciate not being intruded upon or scandalized. I try to always quit blowing bubbles when anybody shows up at the cemetery–even if I think our beloved dead probably like the bubbles a lot. Why wouldn’t they?