“Look Daddy,” my two-year-old son cried out, “We’re home!” We were driving in Virginia at the time, a few hundred miles from upstate New York, where we live. But there was a large cemetery out the passenger’s side window, and my son had made a perfectly understandable mistake.
You see, my wife and I are raising our two sons in a graveyard.
To be precise, it’s next door to our house, the rectory of the village church where I serve: Christ Church, Cooperstown. But our backyard is quite small, and the churchyard is very large, so it often seems like a simple extension of our home. Our three-year-old son sometimes races his trucks and dinosaurs across the flat-topped tombs, the columbarium wall is first base, and we play hide-and-go-seek amid the stones.
We’re not the only ones to spend time there, either. Christ Churchyard had its first burial in 1792, almost fifteen years before the Episcopalians got around to building an actual church, and so the place is on the tourist route. There’s the occasional literary pilgrim, coming to view James Fenimore Cooper’s grave, and others are searching for ancestors or admiring the carvings and charming epitaphs. We have occasional mourners, though not as many as people assume. The nurses come over from the hospital on break for a bit of fresh air, and the neighbor kids ride their skateboards over the broad main path. After dark, during the summer, the “ghost tour” makes its rounds as well, the frock-coated guide with his candle lantern aiming to relate a bit of history while tingling the spine.
The way to church passes through it, and it’s where we begin the Great Vigil and the Palm Sunday Procession. Daniel Nash, our founding rector and the diocesan patron saint, is buried near the path, and we lay a wreath with prayers once a year at the anniversary of his death, and we ask for grace and courage to share the faith as he once did. The whole churchyard is also blessed once a year at All Souls, when those who rest there are commended to God’s keeping until the Great Day to come.
The churchyard is clearly a place for the living as well as the dead. Our little son was right, in the ironic way that young children often are. It is a kind of home, where we belong together with our brothers and sisters, where we learn from each other and share what is good, true, and beautiful.
The abodes of the dead have not always been so. The ancient pagans had their necropoli, clusters of house-tombs with streets between them on the outskirts of their cities. But these were frightening places, haunted by avenging spirits. The Gerasene demoniac, who “neither abode in any house, but in the tombs” (Luke 8:27), was a man cut off from ordinary society. The Jews believed the burial of the dead to be a pious work, as the Book of Tobit well attests. Still, corpses rendered one unclean (Num. 9:11), and the dead were kept far away from places of worship.
Christ’s miracles of resuscitation and his own bodily resurrection profoundly changed the way his followers related to the bodies of the dead. As the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews wrote, he was sent so “that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb. 2:14b-15). The joy that Christians exhibited in the face of death was among the most profound signs of that freedom from bondage. The early Christian tombs were decorated with hopeful symbols, and the graves of the martyrs were places set apart for worship. The tomb lid became the altar, where the Eucharist’s immortal food was spread in place of the pagan funeral feasts.
By the fourth century, the practice of seeking burial near a martyr’s tomb became widespread. Saint Augustine wrote his treatise On Care to Be Had for the Dead in response to a question about the spiritual benefits of the practice. He carefully discounted the notion that physical proximity alone conferred the benefit of the saint’s prayers and reassured the survivors of those who did not receive a proper burial that God’s redemptive work would not be hindered. Nonetheless, he grants that burying Christians in a special place near the center of worship would help the faithful to remember them before God. He wrote:
When therefore the mind recollects where the body of a very dear friend lies buried, and thereupon there occurs to the thoughts a place rendered venerable by the name of a Martyr, to that same Martyr doth it commend the soul in affection of heartfelt recollection and prayer. And when this affection is exhibited to the departed by faithful men who were most dear to them, there is no doubt that it profits them who while living in the body merited that such things should profit them after this life (Augustine, On Care to Be Had for the Dead,7).
On the authority of this and similar statements, the practice of burying the dead in places of worship, in the middle of communities continued to expand. Soon parish churches as well as martyr-shrines found themselves crowded with tombs. The clutter could make worship difficulty, and sometimes even unsafe, in places where the dead were simply covered with stones and dirt and not actually buried. Several tenth- and eleventh-century church councils banned the practice for laymen; one 895 council even suggested that in extreme cases, the altar must simply be relocated and the crowded church converted into a polyandrion or mausoleum (Elizabeth Stone, God’s Acre, or Historical Notes related to Churchyards, 47-48). Under the influence of the monastic movement, churchyards gradually became a more popular place for burial, especially after gravestones became widely fashionable in the seventeenth century.
Until nineteenth-century town councils began relocating cemeteries to distant hills for sanitary reasons, the continuing presence of the dead in the midst of ordinary human life was simply taken for granted. The churchyard was “God’s acre,” a place set aside for sacred things and careful meditation. But, as a convenient, large, open space at the heart of community life, the everyday business of living also found a place there. A good deal of canonical ink was spilled on keeping grazing animals and rowdy teenagers out of them, but, inevitably, churchyards became sites for public meeting, fairs, games, even hangings.
The dead of ages past therefore assumed an audience, and many became careful in choosing their stones and epitaphs. They expected visits by common strangers as well as their own beloved. Some had their gravestones lettered with requests for prayer, while others used their few lines to speak “home truths” with disarming frankness. The degree of interaction they presumed is remarkable when matched against the dull and officious tone set by modern memorials.
Many of the stones in our churchyard urge the living to remember and prepare for their own pending death. Elizabeth Chase’s stone near our back porch lists only her name and date of death. But its upper half is inscribed with a large hand, the index finger simply pointing up to the sky. Similarly, the stone of an infant, one of our earliest burials, speaks with words he could never have used in life:
From Death’s arrest no age is free:
Prepare to die, and follow me.
Other stones express the raw grief of survivors, and continue to invite sympathy for those who mourn. A stone near our church door, for example, still throbs with the words of an early nineteenth-century husband, weeping over his Frances:
Stranger hadst thou ever a wife
Snatched from thee by death,
In the bloom of youth beauty and virtue
If thou never hadst
Though mightest imagine
But cannot feel
The anguish of disconsolate husband.
A few steps away lies a similar plaint, tempered with the hope of joys to come:
Albert O how lonely
We are here without our son
And we hope again to meet thee
Around our heavenly father’s Home.
Still other epitaphs are like fireside tales, summing up a dramatic death or a colorful life in a few lines. Captain John Howard, who drowned trying to save another in a flood-swollen river was recalled thus:
Striving another’s life to save,
He sunk beneath the swelling wave.
James Eaton’s young and tragic death by a lightning strike was remembered rather more darkly:
What voice is that? ’Tis God
He speaketh from the clouds;
In thunder is concealed the rod
That smites him to the ground.
The gravestone of Jenny York, kitchen servant famous for sneaking food out the back door to feed hungry neighbors surely must have brought a smile to the face of even her most earnest mourners. It sums up her life simply:
She had her faults
was kind to the poor.
Other graves speak of the deep hope we share in Christ. One Victorian grave is a cross covered in lilies, while others are marked with open Bibles and the monogram of the Holy Name. Scripture texts abound, and one relates a model of a holy death:
She slept in Christ and with her dying breath
Exulting triumphed o’er the sting of death
Distinct th’o feebly with her faultring tongue
The praises of Almighty God she sung
Thus lived the best of women to the end
The village favorite and the village friend.
Sally Huntington, “the village favorite,” died over 200 years ago. But she lives still, bound to me and to all who gather in the church near her grave. She heard the same Word of God, and fed upon the same sacraments, and she sought to love and obey Christ in the midst of this village, surely sharing in some of the same challenges we still face. She is our sister, and she has tread before the way we all must follow. Her last gift was to show us how to die as a Christian, and for that she remains “the village friend.”
Home is, of course, where you lay your head, and the “cemetery” or “sleeping place” is a distinctively Christian word for the burial ground. And this is perhaps why my son was most correct when he mistook that Virginia graveyard for our home. We are all destined to sleep in the earth, if not in this particular churchyard, then in one much like it. “Prepare to die and follow me.”
And then, one Day, we will all awaken from that rest, and rise to take up our common work. The “bloom of youth, beauty and virtue” will be restored to fallen Frances and her husband’s tears wiped clean. James Eaton will rise from the ground unburned, and the drowned Captain Howard will breathe freely. Sally Huntington’s “faultring tongue” will be strong again, and together we will sing an old home sort of song:
“To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13).