A Visit to Our Cemetery

Fr. David May

One of the things I’ve rarely had time to do is visit our Madonna House cemetery. I seem to have a bit more time now, so this morning I went visiting gravesites, looking forward to the peace and quiet that a Christian cemetery offers. It was not to be.

No sooner had I arrived, than the air seemed filled with chatter:

Your will is my joy … All for the glory of God … With God all is possible … Look for the rainbow … Humble servant of God … Precious is the love of God … Be hidden, be a light … All my days are in your hands, Lord …

Prayer changes things … The Lord is my song … God, forgive me … She served the poor with joy … This poor man called, the Lord heard him … He lived in Mary’s heart … Your presence, Father … Jesus! Mercy!

There was even a bilingual one, as if to meet “Canadian content” requirements: All Yours—Tout à vous.

Each of these brief phrases, carved on a wooden cross (our tomb markers), is an attempt to indicate something essential about the life of a deceased Madonna House staff worker. Some chose their epitaph for themselves. Others left the task to the community.

In each life, God carves his word out of the substance of a person’s offering and struggle.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of the Lord endures forever (Isaiah 40:8).

I wondered, what word is he creating out of my life? I walked further.

Inflamed by love … Awaiting the Resurrection … Come, my beloved, come now … Here I am, Lord … Love is kind … Faithful servant … Through him and with him and in him … A transfigured life …

Her faith has saved her … Some seed fell on good ground … Speak, Lord, your servant is listening … She followed the Lamb … She lived in mercy.

I thought of seeds falling into the ground and dying so as to yield a rich harvest. And I wondered: what does God “do” with a life lived faithfully, even haltingly, but persevering nonetheless to the end, in his service?

Most Madonna House people pass quietly over to the other side. The funeral may or may not attract large numbers of people from outside, but for the most part, little notice is paid either by Church or world.

Yet there is this quiet conviction that something great, something significant has just culminated in a final offering patterned on that of Christ himself.

Where and when will resurrection dawn as a result? Who will be blessed? How far, over what vast distances will that blessing extend? Will each of us bring, as a seed of fire, the “word” we have become by the grace of God?

All my words for the Word … Christ is my life … She served the Lord with gladness … Ave Maria … She loved the poor … He passed it on … The last shall be first … Look to him and be radiant … My call is love … I can boast about my sufferings … A woman of Nazareth … Fiat.

Of course, we go to a cemetery not simply to admire our deceased (if we do) but to pray for them. Most people I know whose mortal remains are now in graveyards have been clear about their sense of need for prayers for their eternal souls for purification.

I certainly have that sense of need personally, considering how long it’s taking me to fully surrender my life to the Lord! But I also know that life has its own built-in purifications; certainly in the lives of believers, right?

Wherever I shall be, I shall be in his hands, first of all, and he has carved me in the palm of those hands (cf. Is 49:16).

I’m not one to speculate about accommodations in purgatory, but I figure that if there is even an ounce of kindness in a person, the Lord, who is merciful and kind, will take over from there.

That may mean tears of utter anguish of regret for one’s rebellion and its consequences, but joy will come eventually. Sooner, if we pray for our deceased.

Having said that, I mostly feel loved in cemeteries where I knew the deceased, or if I am connected with those interred, by faith, vocational similarity, or to put it more simply, the love of Christ.

I figure that if folks loved me when on earth, away in some sense from the Lord, how much more when they are with him in glory!

I first learned this in the Tingle family plot in Melsons, Maryland, where several generations of ancestors are buried.

I’ve always felt at home there, and if my great-grandmother, Jerdie Marie Tingle, baked coconut cake for my birthday when I was ten, what won’t she do for me now that she’s been with the Lord for over forty years and I’m sixty-five!

The same would apply to my great-grandfather, Lloyd Tingle, whom I would occasionally accompany to the Eastern Shore of Virginia where he would visit little country stores in the backwoods, taking their orders for meat for the week.

Mind you, most of my relatives were Methodists while in this world and would not have subscribed to all the theology in this article. However, none were of the strict interpretation.

Back at Madonna House, summer is closing out and autumn is moving in with its contented, but quickly fading golden hues and melancholy assurance that all things earthly must pass.

November, our grayest month of the twelve, will pierce us with its message of bitter cold and bitter loss. For that, too, is part of the message our cemeteries bring.

Something is just not right about a world where death reigns, were there is so much suffering, toil, and loss, where politicians appeal to base instincts of hatred, greed, vengeance, and yes, worship of death in forms of war, euthanasia, abortion, infanticide.

A lot of tears water the earth at cemeteries and with good reason. I feel certain that these mingle with God’s tears.

But in the end, all this passes, and God’s word alone endures forever. No wonder our little Madonna House cemetery is bearing witness with such insistence.

May the Lord shape each of us before we die to be the living Gospel word we are meant to be. For its salvation, our world sorely needs such words.

Glory be to him whose word endures forever, even when heaven and earth itself pass away!