I recently received a touching photo of one of my granddaughters, sent to me by her mother. My granddaughter Anna lost her twin sister a day after their birth. In a lower part of the photo above (which I have cropped), my granddaughter appears to have a look of sadness on her face as she walks through the cemetery. Still, photos can capture momentary facial expressions that do not necessarily reflect our inward disposition.
Anna’s sister’s remains lie under a nearby stone in the cemetery depicted above. The photo shows the very old but still used burial ground of Grace Church, St. Francisville, Louisiana, where I served until 2007. When called away from there, the blessed folks of that parish provided a burial plot for Martha and me in the rector’s portion of the cemetery. It is one of the most touching gifts we have ever received.
In viewing the cemetery scene above, some may have a hard time imagining how a place like this that is associated with death could be replete with signs of life. And yet, it is. These evident signs of life transcend the presence of the church building and its related Christian symbols, like the crosses and inscriptions found on the monuments. Look closely at the live oaks with their long draping limbs, and how they stay green year-long, often supporting gangly strands of gray-green Spanish moss. More subtle are the plant-like growths on the upper surfaces of those limbs, which appear to be a blend of moss and ivy. Their name is resurrection fern, which in dry spells has an ochre color, but which then miraculously transforms into a deep green after an overnight rain.
My former rector’s office looked out upon the ground in which are buried the remains of dear Lucy, a deacon I helped sponsor for ordination. Every time I walk through the paths between alternating old and newer stones, I go to visit her resting place, and also see reminders of other friends and acquaintances. And now, I also go there to visit ‘one of my own,’ in that most personal sense of the phrase. Some day, under one of these magnificent oaks, my remains, as well as Martha’s, will lie next to those of our granddaughter, Avery.
To write these things and muse upon them in this way during the coronavirus pandemic may strike some as morbid. Yet, I share my thoughts here in the spirit of the life-giving texts we encounter liturgically every year in our Eastertide lectionary readings. For, in one way or another, we are all called to visit that rocky ‘garden’ tomb and find it empty, and ponder its significance. There is undeniable beauty in this story about what then becomes a holy place.
The beauty of the good news concerning that empty tomb is so much more than a wonder-story about a lucky man whose experience might inspire us. A man who, despite the worst that this world can do to ‘good’ people, somehow managed to escape into something better. The Gospel story is also the ground for our hope, our hope for ourselves and our loved ones. Can that empty tomb then help us recognize how, in similar places reminiscent of death, we can find signs of new life? Yes. For our cemeteries are places where we seek to remember and honor our loved ones, with whom we are still connected. Here, in these places of burial, we are reminded that through God’s love we are destined for more than we can now see or imagine.
The photo above depicts the cemetery of Grace Episcopal Church in St. Francisville, Louisiana. The church was founded in 1827, and the present building was completed by 1860. Three years later it was damaged by canon fire from Union gunboats on the nearby Mississippi River who were targeting the Courthouse across the street.