Walking Through a Cemetery

By JIM NICHOLS

I have some quirky friends and I suspect you have some too. “Quirky” is not a derogative word here; it just identifies that these people seem to think in different patterns than I do. When they come out with some statement that is unexpected, they often cause me to think, “She’s right. I had not thought of that, or at least in that way.” Frankly, some of these quirky friends have been the stimulus of some significant growth for me.

One such individual grew up in Southern California and was very much a California guy. He loved the area and demonstrated many of the cultural characteristics one would identify with it. As a young adult, he moved to a job in Connecticut. Living there, he was fascinated by the many attractive and meaningful cemeteries. They seemed to be everywhere and were almost part of the landscape. Apparently, it was the first time he had ever noticed that cemeteries are a part of every community, often a central part. In his quirkiness he said to me (with some humor but some serious wondering), “This is a new sight for me. Maybe nobody ever dies in Southern California.” Indeed, sometimes we must be in a different place with new sights, sounds, and aromas to realize some of the realities present already.

I remembered this friend’s statement as I read through a Facebook thread several years ago. It started with one person describing her walk through a cemetery. As with most cemeteries, some of the graves were originals there, dating multiple decades or more into the past. It was still an active cemetery, however, so there were also many grave sites that were recent. Her comments initiating this thread concerned the headstones on the sites from the older section of the cemetery compared to those in the new section. 

All the stones logically noted the name of the deceased plus often the dates of birth and death. What caught her attention was anything additional. She noted that in the older section the gravestones often had engraved crosses, praying hands, angels, doves, flowers, star of David, or an occasional Mason or Eastern Star. In contrast, the stones in the newer section, in addition to an occasional cross or angel, featured football helmets, motorcycles, or golf clubs. At least one airplane and unicorn appeared. She wondered about this, and it elicited several comments from others.

One respondent suggested that the earlier religious items on the stones connected to fears about accessing heaven. A century ago, at least in western Christianity, there was significant doubt about the assurance of redemption offered by Christ. Have I done enough good deeds? Have I truly repented? Was my baptism correct and effective for salvation? The suggestion was that the symbols on the stones were to memorialize the deceased with objects of their faith, thus, perhaps, aiding their acceptance into eternal life. With today’s emphasis more on acceptance of God’s grace, the need for such fearful symbolism has decreased, the writer suggested.

In contrast, another suggested just the opposite. Rather than expressing fear, she said, the religious symbols were expressions of spiritual trust. Drawing on numerous examples from both the Old and New Testament, connections with God’s actions in the past (angels, crosses, doves) were part of an assurance of eternal care.

The more current appearance of items associated with everyday life could be a repudiation of things-religious, or simply a loving way for family to identify important parts of the life of the deceased. They do not want to lose the memory of what they thought was vital to the life of their loved one.

Another contributor offered reason by noting that some cemeteries have regulations concerning adornments, including gravestones. What is appropriate during one time period or area of the country may be different in another. Funeral and memorial websites elaborate on this and identify many options.

The consideration could be widened by reflecting on the content of funerals themselves. This is a topic for another day, but the variety and mixture of fear, trust, memory, celebration, and lament touches lives in important ways.

Death and burial force us to wrestle with realities we would generally like to avoid. It is not a time for judging others’ decisions, but it is also not a time to avoid thinking about reality. 

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

One comment

  • A favorite collection of mine is Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology.” Each poem is named for a deceased community member whose epitaph speaks the truths buried in the graves with the deceased. Cemeteries can be fascinating places that tell many stories.

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