Easter Sunday, 12 Apr 2020
You might think it a strange admission for this joyful day, this theological high point of our Church year; for this sunny Easter morning. But I love cemeteries. I always have. It’s my dear granny’s fault - she encouraged the boy Fr Rimmer in his already slightly morose tendencies, often taking me on walks that took us through the village graveyard, pointing out family graves, interesting monuments, graves with stories. It helped perhaps that it was also a beautiful spot, surrounded by fields, home to wild flowers and ancient yew trees and filled with birdsong.
When I rather belatedly stumbled on the 1980s indie rock band The Smiths at university therefore, I found meaning, indeed I found a personal anthem - don’t laugh - in a wonderful song from their third studio album: a dreaded sunny day, it goes, so I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates/Keats and Yeats are on your side. And no holiday, no city break, now is complete for me - to the bafflement of friends and family - without a tour of its dead - Pere Lachaise or Montparnasse in Paris, the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, Brooklyn’s Greenwood, the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo or London’s very own atmospheric Highgate Cemetery not so far away. For some graveyards are dark places, places of shadow and superstition, of gothic intrigue, of melancholy or morosity. For us all during our lives, they will become places of sadness, reminding us of grief, of loss. Places which for some people become indeed a morbid fixation - for many others something to avoid at least whilst we can. Often on the edge of cities, frequently overgrown, they’re places that perhaps for much of our lives we try to forget.
As Christians however, we can’t quite do that. One very obvious reason for this is that the culminating event of our faith takes place in a graveyard. This morning we’ve heard a particular episode - St John’s very carefully crafted account of the disciples’ arrival at the empty tomb. But we’re reminded too of the burial on Good Friday or the meeting of the Risen Lord with Mary Magdalene - who mistakes him, rather beautifully, for a gardener amidst the dew and mist of an early spring morning. In the earth of a graveyard was the Lord laid and from its earth he rose. A place, yes, of mourning - but a place too of new life.
Over the last days as we’ve kept Holy Week we’ve constantly had to hold together both desolation and joy - amongst other emotions. And just as we can’t help but know during all the solemnity and pain of Good Friday that things will indeed come good - that the Lord took that bloody way to Golgotha to redeem us - and died so that we might have life abundant, so we cannot today, this happy day, forget what has come to pass and how it came to pass - cannot but recognise amidst this joy - and it is joy - that it has come at great cost.
Isn’t it interesting that of the all places that Jesus laid his head during his time on this earth - the lowly manger in Bethlehem - no crib for a bed - we sung - the tents and temporary homes of the exile in Egypt, that little house at Nazareth, and the denless and nestless routes of his ministry in Galilee - it is only this one, the tomb, that pretends to a human grandeur - cut expensively from the rock by Joseph of Arimathea. The Incarnation and Crucifixion made icons of rude and simple wooden constructions - but the grave in which Jesus was laid and from which he emerged having conquered death out of love for us - is solid and imposing. He hath raised the lowly and scattered the proud - just as the Cross is exalted that forbidding and solid and final tomb is broken and made low.
Graveyards indeed tell us a lot about ourselves, about this human race to which we belong. Funeral art is fascinating. If I had to choose one class of thing to show to aliens to teach them about humanity I’d consider taking them to a graveyard. They have lots to reveal about us. And lots of it not very good. Cemeteries speak all too often of the inequality that is still endemic in human society. They can be be places of astonishing vulgarity - they’re full of the most basic prosaic cliches, their monuments embody pride and pretence and hubris and fear and defensiveness. Their inscriptions can reduce humanity to limiting categories as to whether the deceased is someone’s - or perhaps presumably then no one’s - loving grandfather or favourite aunt. And yes, ultimately, they speak of death, and therefore, of sin, the universal human condition. That frosty bleak condition from which on that first Easter morning we were saved. And they remind us, inevitably, of loss. It isn’t surprising then, that we approach them with trepidation.
But they tell us more, too. As I’ve said, cemeteries can be places of remarkable beauty. The older they are, the more likely they have become places of life in a very obvious sense - havens for the wildlife that humanity has pushed to the edges, lungs in polluted cities, reserves of the quiet and of the prayer with which humanity has little patience. Places which also speak of human tenderness, or human fortitude and courage - of faithfulness and fond memory, of human achievement and of humility - of friendship and family both local and in broader human terms, places where those wronged or misunderstood in life are given honour, places where we come to remember our dearest and our best. Funerary monuments in the great cathedrals especially remind us of an age too when human life’s worldly end was much more a conscious part of life than it is perhaps today, or at least has been until recently. Great princes and prelates are carved in stone at the height of their human achievement but also, down below, in their desiccated skeletal remains - and graves of all orders ubiquitously adorned with their skulls and memento mori speak of an age when we perhaps felt much closer to - more at ease with - what it is to be mortal. Fui quod es eris quod sum, a Latin motto you’ll find on a lot of tombs in country churches, warns the the reader - I was what you are, you shall be what I am.
None of this is either to glorify death or to belittle it, or to commend cultivating an existentialist fatalism or to wallow in morbidity. But we must accept the paradox that despite the Lord’s Resurrection that we celebrate today, despite this joyful festival of the life Christ has bought us - we shall still die. We, and those we care about and those on another side of the world that we don’t know shall continue to suffer before this world comes to its conclusion. We know all too well at this time how vulnerable we all are to the unseen killer - this virus that competes with us for life. And the old questions about where God is in all this, about what today’s triumph over death means for the elderly or the doctors who have died in recent weeks, those questions will persist. Death, now more than ever, is for the heirs of Adam, for us, a part of life.
Cemeteries, these cities, these gardens of the dead, then, reveal something important about what it is to be alive. They tell us too a lot about what it is to be Christian. One of my favourite graveyards is in New Haven, Connecticut, where I spent a year. (In the city, not in the cemetery itself by the way). Above a vast sandstone gate in heavy Egyptian style is written in vast letters that powerful, simple complex promise at the heart of our faith: ‘The Dead Shall be Raised’. The Lord’s Resurrection is the beginning of a general Resurrection that shall see this world transformed and one day, we hope, we too with those who lie buried now will be brought together into the company into the life of heaven. We are reminded in graveyards of our our sisters and brothers in Christ who await that resurrection.
We are reminded too that though the Resurrection is behind us in time, the commission and promise it gives us is ahead of us. Edwin Muir’s poem One Foot in Eden reminds me of the way in cemeteries hark back to that first garden. But he reminds us too that it is but one foot of ours that remains there. The Lord’s Resurrection in the graveyard garden deliberately reminds us of Eden. But its effect is not to take us back there. The Lord’s Resurrection does not start things again. Our joy should be increased at the way in which the Lord, through the abandonment and agony that is the human condition, has redeemed us, for it makes of all this - not despite of all this - something new. His suffering does not answer or explain the question of why we die, why we suffer - it fills our suffering with his presence and assures us that what we go through will if we are faithful to it, faithful to him, be redeemed. What had Eden ever to say, Muir writes, of hope and faith and pity and love? Grief in this world is the price we pay for love. Hope is that beautiful barmy resolution not to be brought down, and to see the best in everyone. Faith is that confidence in the Love at the heart of this world - that Love that we know but do not see, pity that grace-given possibility that we must hone and sharpen throughout our lives. For it connects us in compassion with our fellow humanity; pity and not pride, the basis for kindness, gentleness, courage and heroism. The Resurrection, that ultimate, that final victory over death and that invitation into eternal life gives us the grace to find in this in-between world the means to live more fully. To lead lives that though mortal and frail and painful are life-giving. That speak of more than mere cells, more than mere biology more than a virus, more than mere life.
Cemeteries show us that we cannot see life without seeing death. But they show us too, that if we take to heart, if we live out the Risen Lord’s victory over death, that we cannot see death without seeing life either. Life that gives itself, and in doing so which increases and spreads faster than any virus can. Live that life and be glad today - be glad that it costs so much.