A few years ago I was driving along, daydreaming and only half listening to Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” on NPR. Suddenly, Keillor uttered my name—Vander Zee. He was reading a poem by the hard-edged short story writer Raymond Carver, titled “A Walk.” Here’s an excerpt:
I took a walk . . .
and got off at the country graveyard
where a man sleeps between
two wives. Emily van der Zee,
Loving Wife and Mother,
is at John van der Zee’s right.
Mary, the second Mrs. van der Zee
also a loving wife, to his left.
First Emily went, then Mary.
After a few years, the old fellow
Eleven children came from these
And they, too, would all have to be dead now.
This is a quiet place. . . .
So there I was, all vigor and health, when a poem suddenly brought me face to face with my demise.
Like Carver, I walk in cemeteries. Riverside Cemetery sits on a bluff above the St. Joseph River close to my house. My wife and I often amble through it as we talk about the day’s events or make plans for tomorrow. Sometimes we just walk silently.
Walking in cemeteries is good spiritual practice. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that you’ll be there some day, your body moldering in the ground, your once vital existence marked only by a hunk of granite.
Of course, we all know we’re going to die. Yet, strangely, we tend to ignore this fact as we continue life’s breathless jaunt.
We’ve all heard the warning that when we die, what we’ve accomplished or accumulated will mean little. We may regret things left undone or unsaid, relationships neglected, time wasted on things that didn’t count in the end. Walking through a cemetery can be a good way to begin sorting life’s priorities. The silent stones have a way of jolting our minds with the reality that “our days are like grass.”
Cemeteries also remind me that the grave is a gateway. As Jesus says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11: 25).
That’s why the cemeteries I like best are church graveyards. I wish my church had one. Imagine making your way to the church door, passing the gravestones of all your forebears and friends. Church graveyards remind us that the “communion of the saints” affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed embraces the dead as well as the living members of Christ’s body.
My mother-in-law died recently. She was a deeply involved member of a large downtown Episcopal congregation with no graveyard, and no room for one. At the end of her funeral service, the priest took up the little box of her ashes. He and my mother-in-law’s family and friends processed to the rear of the church. On the wall was a columbarium marked with names of those whose remains had been placed inside. The priest placed her ashes in a round niche and sealed it up. No niche was bigger or smaller than any other. In death, all the saints are equal before God in the grace of Christ.
Whenever this congregation worships, the columbarium literally backs up the church’s worship. Those engraved names remind the worshipers of life’s brevity and urgency. But, even more wonderfully, the names remind them that they are joining in the glorious worship of all the saints in heaven and on earth.
A walk in a cemetery is a good spiritual practice. As Carver’s poem continues:
This is a quiet place.
As good a place as any
to break my walk, sit, and provide
my own death, which comes on.