As a priest, I have spent a lot of time in cemeteries. Despite the tears and trauma that can be part of a burial service, cemeteries I think hold a special place in most people’s lives. I personally find them peaceful, homey, solemn and holy. This is not a morbid estimation, but one that is real to me. In a cemetery, we can certainly feel sadness, but this emotion is more directly related to love than it is to pain. Both, for sure, are close because we often hear it said, ‘I love you to death.’ Pain diminishes however slowly, while love never dies.
I admit that before I ever went to a cemetery, I probably thought of them as a scary place. However, my first trip to a cemetery was as an altar boy. I had served a Funeral Mass at St. Anthony Church in Missoula and the priest asked the two servers to come to the cemetery, My memory is foggy of the experience because I was young and it was not a typical burial rite. My remembrance is that the casket was opened (it may not have been illegal to do so in those days?) and people placed things in the casket amidst music and visible grief. This post-service excitement took a long time so we servers went back to the church with the priest. This was a long time ago, but it was the first time I entered a cemetery and from then on, cemeteries did not seem so frightening or foreboding. Who would have known then that later I would be in cemeteries almost on a weekly basis?
The peacefulness of cemeteries is rooted in silence. Protocol in cemeteries calls for a quietness, not in the sense that noise could wake the dead, but that others there may be communing with their loved ones. Unnatural or unreasonable noise would disturb this sacred and personal time. Of course, it is understood that quietness is often qualified differently according to varying cultures. Going to cemeteries regularly afforded me the opportunity to see people communing with loved ones. Even in 115 degree heat, I remember seeing those who would sit under a parasol, talking, remembering, missing and looking forward to seeing once again their beloved.
When I lived in Minneapolis and would go to Red Lake Falls (a long drive north) to visit my grandmother; the first thing we did would be to go to the cemetery. We had a routine. My grandfather was interred near the road so we parked there and visited with Frederick the Great. Then, we wandered over to her parents, a brother who was killed in a hunting accident. My grandmother always led me to see the priests’ graves, some of whom were French-speaking. It was a small cemetery so walking covered a lot of ground quickly. Step by step, my grandmother would comment about how she knew one cemetery ‘resident’ after another. This was her hometown, so she knew a lot of people’s graves and the stories that went to the grave with them. This is what makes cemeteries homey…times may have changed since the burial, but the memory of earlier days remains. Personalization of graves also makes cemeteries feel homey. It’s nice to see how families decorate graves with personal mementos: stuffed animals, windmills, holiday decorations.
The solemnity of a cemetery is usually evinced in orderliness even if it might look unkempt. Usually, one can feel how a cemetery is organized. Rows of trees, hedges, fountains, ornamental gates and fences. A strong sense of this solemnity is clear at American National Cemeteries where there are typically rows of white headstones and a sea of grass. The National Cemetery in Phoenix, however, does not have a blade of grass and there are no vertical gravestone, but embedded markers. Still, one cannot help but to see and feel an orderliness, an honorable solemnity of a special place.
Holiness in a cemetery is not necessarily a reference to any religion, but more so to a common understanding of mortality. I remember waiting for a bus at the corner of Nicollet and Lake in Minneapolis. This was an area with lots of bus connections to various churches. Two elderly women awaiting a bus were obviously coming from church and on the way home. One was apparently frustrated by the tardiness of the bus and her companion said something like, “Don’t worry. If we don’t get to the home (their destination), we’ll go home (ultimate destination, heaven often referred to as ‘home.”
My home is waiting for me in heaven and on earth. I’ll take up residence in the crypt of the Los Angeles Cathedral, a beautiful, solemn and peaceful place deep down and abutting the Hollywood Freeway! From there, as my niche marker claims, ‘credo’ (Latin for I believe), I will be raised from the dead and live in my Father’s house. This is how Jesus described heaven in John: 14: 2: In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? So, for me this promise makes this world beautiful, cemeteries lovely and heaven heavenly.