Lately, I’ve been binging on British television shows via Netflix. On one of the shows, a recurring character is the local rector or pastor in this small town. In order to enter the church where he serves, the congregation must walk through the graveyard which surrounds the church on all sides. In other words, the church building is in the middle of a cemetery.
I’ve never pastored or belonged to a church that had such a set-up. Many churches have cemeteries next to them—especially in rural settings—or across the street or even a bit down the road. I’ve not seen a church surrounded by a cemetery. My closest experience was when I did a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. Here, one had to walk by a small cemetery in order to enter the monastery. Still, the abbey was not surrounded by tombstones.
In one of my first call congregations in Indiana, the small country church had a cemetery across the road from the building. The cemetery had belonged to the church at one time, but its care had been taken over by the township long before I arrived. Still, many of our members were buried there, and I thought of it as “our” cemetery. Numerous times in my ten years in that place, I walked through the cemetery and read the tombstones. There were familiar names whose descendants and family members still attended the church. There were even a few tombstones for members who were still alive, but had purchased their gravesites and installed their headstones in preparation for the time when they would be needed. It was startling to me the first time I saw tombstones bearing the names of people who still sat in church every week. It was a stark reminder of the earthly death that awaits us all.
When I saw that church-in-a-cemetery on the television, I found myself thinking that there is something about walking through the earthly remains of former church members in order to enter one’s place of worship—the place where we weekly celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Worshippers walk out of their daily lives, into a place of death, and then into a place of resurrection. Sounds like a perfect metaphor for our lives, doesn’t it?
And let us not forget walking OUT of the that same tombstone-surrounded church. Worshippers must also walk out of a place in which they heard the good news of Jesus Christ, through a place of death, and back into the world, renewed and reminded of what they are called to do: to proclaim a God of resurrection in a world fraught with death and fear and hopelessness. Even those who do not attend a church-in-a-cemetery, this is the call of all followers of Jesus Christ.
I also think that walking through the graves of our spiritual forebears might increase our sense of connection to our past, as well as remind us of our responsibility to ensure the future of this faith community. Church cemeteries should not cause us to cling to the past or mourn what once was, but should encourage us to look forward, knowing that our time on earth is limited and that God’s call is not about what was, but about what IS. The past is important to help us understand who we once were. Yet God calls us to live in the NOW, to speak and enact the good news today, and to trust the future is in God’s hands.