A Symposium on Christian Burial
Plots & Parking Lots by Russell D. Moore
by Russell D. Moore
Drive by your local booming suburban church, or the up-and-coming congregation everyone’s talking about in your community. You might find a state-of-the-art children’s complex, complete with antibiotic soap dispensers in every corner. You might find a Family Life Center—previously known as a gym—with a basketball court, foosball tables, maybe even an Olympic-size pool. You’ll almost certainly find a feeding hall, perhaps with a franchised gourmet coffee kiosk nearby.
What you will not find is a graveyard.
Not many churches have graveyards anymore. In some ways, that’s understandable. Churches that are growing and evangelistic rightly conclude that sharing the gospel with the living is more important than remembering the dead.
We all know churches that carefully manicure their graveyards and remember who is buried where. They also remember who paid for what pillar—so don’t you try to remove it to create additional space for your children’s Bible fellowship area. For them the graveyard is a symbol of a concern more for maintaining their family genealogies and the memories of the past than forging forward for the Kingdom.
But, still. I wonder if we are losing something by outsourcing the care of our dead to the funeral industry. Did we lose something important, maybe even something biblical, when we paved over our graveyards?
The church graveyard might serve to remind us of something that we as contemporary Christians, with all our flash and verve, seem to forget too often these days. We are going to die.
Too often we seek reminders of God’s power in the buzz and energy of a campus Bible study or a youth rally or a celebrated church service. We believe that God is present among us if there are beautiful, vital young people around us. We believe there is dynamism present if our services are seamless, and if our celebrities smile or cry on cue.
And often the Spirit is there, with power. But sometimes the excitement is just that—excitement—not the longing of a people for a crucified Messiah.
Perhaps, though, a graveyard in our peripheral vision as we get out of the car for worship might remind us of the gravity of the task before us. Maybe a cemetery would serve as an icon that all our Babels will collapse, all our wood, hay, and stubble will be incinerated before the Judgment Seat.
Centuries ago, Gregory of Nyssa warned the youths who heard him preach of the illusory nature of pride. He pointed to their agile feet, their rosy cheeks, their polished shoes, and asked, “Are you not ashamed, you little clay doll, soon to be dust, blown up like a bubble with your own momentary puff, full of pride, all swollen with inflamed delusion and inflating your mind with empty conceit?”
The antidote for such pride is to consider one’s end. “Have you not seen in the burial ground the mysteries of our existence?” he asked. “Have you not seen the heap of bones piled on each other, skulls stripped of flesh, staring fearsome and horrible from empty eye-sockets? Have you seen the grinning mouths and the rest of the limbs lying casually about? If you have seen those things, then in them you have observed yourself.”
A Check on Pride
Such a warning is not just a check on the pride of individuals, but of churches as well.
After all, our church buildings—even the most state-of-the-art of them—will someday decay and collapse. Your church sign may someday hang silently above the rubble, battered and torn, like the Statue of Liberty in the final scene of the Planet of the Apes. Maybe its faded wording will still announce to the silences around it, “The Church Alive Is Worth the Drive,” but no one will care how good the sound system used to be.
Our hymnals and our bulletins and our PowerPoint presentations and our systematic theology texts will one day wither away into mold and dust. The Library of Congress itself, with the record of all our best-selling Evangelical Bible study guides and praise-song recordings, will be swept away like refuse. The celebrity preachers’ and singers’ once-celebrated vocal cords will vibrate no more, and the bright eyes and clear complexions photographed for book covers and publicity shots will one day melt away into dirt.
Only the gospel, only the power of Christ, will remain.
The church graveyard also reminds us that we are a peculiar people. When we are gathered together to our fathers, we don’t simply lie under the funeral home tent in Shady Grove #5 with all the others in the region of the last place to which we moved. We are laid to rest by our brothers and sisters, those who wait with us for Something to happen.
I still ponder how much more effective we would be in preaching the gospel to our neighbors if we showed them—even with our landscape around us—that we are more than a community group. We’re a Kingdom, a Kingdom that spans the ages and includes the dead and the unborn, mighty as an army with banners.
I’m realistic enough to know that the church graveyard is a thing of the past. We probably won’t see seminars on how to plan for a really good graveyard at any pastor’s conferences in our lifetime. The plans for planting new churches won’t include acres for a graveyard.
But maybe we would see something of what we’re missing if we took the time to walk among the tombstones once in a while. Find an old graveyard and walk through it. Walk about and see the headstones weathered and ground down by the elements. Contemplate the fact that beneath your feet are men and women who once had youthful skin and quick steps and hectic calendars, but who are now piles of forgotten bones.
Think about the fact that the scattered teeth in the earth below you once sang hymns of hope—maybe “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder I’ll Be There” or “When We All Get to Heaven.” They are silent now. But they will sing again. They will preach again. They will testify again. They will laugh again.
Awakened by a Shout
And, while you’re there, think of the promise every generation of Christians has held against the threat of sword and guillotine and chemical weaponry. This stillness will one day be interrupted by a shout from the eastern sky, a joyful call with a distinctly northern Galilean accent.
Maybe if we spent more time in graveyards, we might reconsider the need for them. Maybe we’d be able to speak more honestly to a people scared to death of death if we offered them and ourselves a visible sign that we, too, know what death is, and that we hate it, too.
But the graveyard is not just a sign that we haven’t forgotten our dead. It’s a sign that we’re just waiting for them—and for ourselves—to hear one last invitation hymn. And when those quiet little mounds begin bursting, with headstones flying about, and a clap of thunder resounds across the sky, then at last it can truly be said, “Man, this church is alive.”
by Wilfred M. McClay
A few years ago, a woman walking her dog in Noble, Georgia, stumbled on the remains of a human corpse. Investigators found many more corpses, eventually hundreds of them, which had been thrown out there by the Tri-State Crematory, a family-owned business that received bodies from funeral homes in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. Some of the corpses were “stacked like cordwood,” as one observer said, while other “human bones, weathered white, were scattered through the woods like leaves, skulls mixed with leg bones in a ghoulish jumble,” as the New York Times reported.
The story generated universal and sustained outrage around the country, but as the outrage mounted, I began to ask myself, “Why?”
Why such vehemence? Why, when so many Americans see nothing exceptional in the taking of a pre-born life, when they are becoming inured to the warehousing of the elderly and infirm, when they regard the protection of embryonic life as itself a laughable proposition, when they routinely accept cremation, and the dismemberment of corpses for science, did this bizarre episode strike horror in so many?
And why, in this most Christ-haunted region of the South, not far from the home of Flannery O’Connor, was such opprobrium attached to the mistreatment of a body from which the spirit had departed, an inert “stiff” in which, literally, nobody was at home anymore? Why did those who took so low a view of the body that they were quite willing to have it disposed of by cremation, find this crematory’s neglectful mistreatment to be, not merely regrettable, but an act of beyond-the-pale barbarity? Why draw the line here?
We Do Care
It was not a consumer-protection issue, in which the next of kin felt that they had not gotten what they paid for. No, the answer is something simpler, but also more profound.
It goes to the fact that there is something of primal importance about the way we treat the dead, and especially our ancestors. Nothing tells us more about a culture’s regard for the human person, and its sense of itself as an entity persisting in time, than the character of its funerary rituals, its ways of acknowledging and remembering the dead.
We may be able to pretend to ourselves in twenty-first-century America that disposing of the dead is merely an elaborate form of taking out the trash, because there is “nothing there” but used-up protoplasm. But an incident like the one in Georgia puts such self-deceptions in a glaringly bright light, and undermines all our equivocations and sleights of hand.
We do in fact care what happens to the body. We can’t help it. We still believe, viscerally, in the dignity of the human body. But we can mount no articulate defense of this belief. And so we have allowed ourselves through the practices we routinely employ to accept a diminution of one of life’s most fundamental passages, and a violation of our elemental dignity, that amount to a negation of the human person himself.
As Robert Pogue Harrison has observed in his luminous book The Dominion of the Dead, civilization is built upon the awareness of our dead predecessors. “Only the dead can grant us legitimacy,” he writes. “Left to ourselves we are all bastards.” We bury the dead less to separate ourselves from them than to join ourselves to them. By burying them in our midst, we also humanize the grounds on which we ourselves live.
One might even say that burial has a certain civilizational priority, that what we make of the dead creates the foundation for what we make of ourselves. After all, as Harrison neatly puts it, “human beings housed their dead before they housed themselves.”
Prehistoric nomads established permanent habitations of the dead, such as caverns, mounds, and barrows, and these were the chief settled landmarks and points of return, often also serving as shrines and sacred places with particular access to the spirit world. Only later did such men exchange their mobility for settled habitations, cities of the living built amid reminders of the dead. Which is why Lewis Mumford was right to proclaim that “the city of the dead antedates the city of the living” and is “the forerunner, almost the core, of every living city.”
If this is true, then what are we to make of the fact, as Joseph Bottum has observed recently, that the modern city of San Francisco has proscribed the building of cemeteries and the interment of the dead inside its city limits? What does this tell us about the future of San Francisco, and us?
Will a civilization that comprehensively denies death by banishing every visible reminder be like a house without a foundation, destined to be blown away by the storms that will surely come? Will it be like a tree that has been deprived of its taproot, and is destined to wither and die for lack of nourishment?
Or will we be granted insight into the effect of separating ourselves from the bodies of our ancestors? Might the Tri-State Crematory episode provide just such a landscape-illuminating lightning bolt?
I think that it did, and that the rage, and the shudder of horror, so many felt at the news of the Georgia events disclosed a part of their souls that had not yet been anesthetized. Their reaction suggested that they knew, however dimly and unconsciously, that we have drifted into profoundly dangerous attitudes and practices.
Our disdain for the dead, and our desire to keep ourselves at the furthest possible distance from them, reflect back upon us. In this mirror we see clearly, if fleetingly, that we will need to remember where we came from if we are ever to understand, and ever to be able to explain cogently, why it is wrong to stack bodies like cordwood. For the measure we give is surely the measure we will receive.
by Anthony Esolen
One of the nicer features of Rhode Island, where I live, is that everywhere you turn, there’s what the state calls a Historical Cemetery, probably close to a thousand in all, or about one for every square mile. A few of them are fairly large, covering the area of a baseball diamond. Most of them, though, have ten or twenty tombstones, in a little plot raised above the surrounding earth by a stone wall, or fenced in with iron paling.
Some, built on what used to be farmland, now abut a car wash or an exit ramp. Others are like oases of memory on private property. Sometimes you’ll see a towering oak or maple sprung up right in the middle, heaving the ground up and tilting the tombstones at a jaunty angle.
You can’t use riding mowers on these, because there’s no room. Small mowers and clippers have to do. In the meantime, wind and rain and the slow reclamation of dust do their natural work, rubbing away the names in the old, soft limestone, and making it impossible to read the cursive lettering without running your finger along to trace it out: “Born in County Cork,” “Daughter of Elijah and Mary Harris,” “My Hope is in the Lord.”
Fashioned by the Ages
The Christian names are often old-fashioned, in the sense that the ages have fashioned them, Biblical names, names of virtues, Germanic and Celtic names passed along from father to son or uncle to nephew: Samuel, Prudence, William. And the surnames shed some dim light still upon the towns and villages about. “These here,” the careful cemetery haunter muses, “might be those same Fiskes that dammed the river and built the mill.”
There you see the old neighborhood, transplanted till the resurrection of the dead. Here are the Cromptons, here are the Clydes. Here is the uncle whom the family stowed away on a boat with a couple of sovereigns in his pocket when he was fourteen, to flee the potato famine and make something of himself in America. The grandson of one such, a Harkins, became bishop of Providence and founded my college. The cemetery presumes that those filaments of memory and of communion are sacred.
It’s not egalitarian, either. Death, they say, is the great equalizer, but the cemetery protests, as well it should. God has not sowed the earth with trees all of a height, or flocked the sky with birds all of a feather; nor made men all of the same grace and light.
So I do not mind the ambitious obelisks for the grocer’s family, or the great marble vault for the lawyer’s, or the humble limestone slab for the plowman’s. Mostly they are all in good taste, and if damnable pride has brought Mr. Burrill to the everlasting bonfire, who am I to begrudge him a little showiness in his last highway marker?
The reader may guess with what nausea I view the modern cemetery, wherein what is natural and human must submit to the exigencies of the machine. Vast flat fields, with one flat stone indistinguishable from another, invisible and illegible unless you are standing above them, a great Soviet of death, a McGraveyard, with the mower driving thru.
It is hardly relieved by the occasional “personal” touch, like an engraving of a Model T on the headstone of a car aficionado. All men equal in their individuality, equally alienated, equally warehoused, equally flat. And when it snows, they vanish entirely, as if they never were.
by David Mills
The young woman wanted to empty her savings account—money needed for college and saved over a year of nannying demanding and ill-behaved children—to help bury her grandfather, who had left instructions that he was to be cremated. This was characteristic of him: to be buried as he had lived, no fuss, no bother, no public display, no postmortem assertion of self, costing his widow as little money and work and worry as possible.
I explained that the process had already been set in motion, and that her grandmother would never agree, and that even raising the subject would upset her unnecessarily. And there was, I added, something to be said for respecting her grandfather’s wishes, as she would want her own children someday to respect hers.
About two and a half years later, her other grandfather died. At the funeral, the minister began with what she thought were comforting words. The body, she said, was only a shell, and shells get old and break, and when they do they open to let out the spirit, which freed from the body can then go to God.
Yet sitting behind her was the man’s body, in a plain wood coffin just carried into the church with ceremony and reverence—our eldest son and I among the pallbearers—which seemed fairly pointless if his body were merely a discarded shell, and one that had prevented him from seeing God. That man-sized box belied her gnostic attempt to palliate the pains of death.
It Feels Wrong
The young woman is our eldest daughter, and the first grandfather to die my father and the second her mother’s. We had never discussed burial, as far as I can remember, but the idea of cremation repelled her, and when my father died she begged me repeatedly to find some way to have her grandfather buried rather than burned. That I could not do so is a pain I still feel.
She could not explain her objection, but I understand it, and share it. I know, and explained to her, the arguments allowing cremation. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tersely puts it, “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of belief in the resurrection of the body.”
But still, it feels wrong to burn a body that could be laid to rest. It may be “licit,” in the technical language of canon law, but it does not seem to me proper. It may be permitted, but that does not mean it is good when you can accomplish the ideal.
My daughter and I were both thinking of what it means, what it symbolizes, to bury and to burn the body. You burn something to destroy it, often, as in burning brush, because that is the easiest and cheapest way to dispose of it. Nothing, except the human body, do we reduce to ashes and then treat the ashes as if they were the original. Ashes are in every other case something you throw away. They are waste, trash, leavings, debris, a burden and often an expense.
Sometimes, of course, we burn things as a gesture of contempt and defiance of the realities for which they stand. Think of book burnings and flag burnings. Think how you would react to the news that someone had set down a Bible on the town square, soaked it with gasoline, and lit it.
We bury things we want to preserve, like time capsules, or to transform, like seeds and bulbs. Planting is the main symbol we think of when we think of burying something. It is an act of hope, of trust. And so we bury things we reverence, like the bodies of those we love, in the hope of their rising again.
There is a reason the pagans burned their dead, and still do, while Jews and Christians buried them. I suspect, but could not now argue, that there is some connection between the growth in cremation among Christians and their declining birth rate. We burn what we will not bear.
The Natural Instincts
I don’t think belief in the Resurrection will long survive cremation, once it becomes the standard among Christians, since it goes so hard against the natural instincts, guided by the natural symbols, to lay to rest those we have loved. The coffin means something different than the urn.
After my father’s memorial service, we left the church and went home. After my father-in-law’s, we carried the coffin out of the church, again with ceremony, and in a long procession of cars drove it slowly to the cemetery near his home, where it—where he—was carried from the hearse to the grave and then put into the ground.
Her father’s grave is a permanent blessing for my wife and for our children, my father’s lack of one a permanent and irreparable loss for me, for my children, and, perhaps, for our grandchildren and their children.
by S. M. Hutchens
There is no better place to be alone with thought, no place, I think, where the mind is better concentrated in Dr. Johnson’s sense—where one senses the high measure of truth in Heidegger’s description of human life as Sein zum Tode (“being toward death”)—than in a turn through an old cemetery. I don’t mean a tourist’s jaunt, or a visit in the company of others, but a solitary walk, alone among the dead, pausing where one wishes and staying as long as seems good.
As it happens, the opportunity to visit mature cemeteries has come to me most often in places where I have gone to deliver a paper at some convocation. There are few men freer than the scholar, done with that labor and delivery, and likely looking forward to nothing more onerous than the panel discussion for which he needn’t return until three.
The churning mind has earned its rest, and seeks it. Where is it better found than among the remains of others who have also given their papers and taken their rest?
The voices one hears in the graveyards are muted, and say little, but they say what needs to be said. I leave them and return to the clamor with mild feelings of regret, for it has always seemed to me the world’s apprehension of reality is mournfully low, and that no one is better grounded in it than the dead.
I remember a handsome stone from the late eighteenth century, hard by the wall of an old church in the Old South. It marked the grave of a young woman who had died in her late teens, and the infant daughter who shared her death day. The husband and father had spent much on it, for it was large and full of tender writing. Next to it was a smaller stone, the man’s second wife. Next to that a smaller one yet—his third. Finally there was the marker of the man himself, now revealed to have been considerably older than the first wife, whom he had buried with such evident grief, a man whom the later experiences of life had likely changed. Just how they had wrought in him we cannot say, but the mind cannot help considering the possibilities, and being humbled thereby.
In another cemetery, this time in Maine, I saw the single stone of a man and wife with no death-date yet inscribed. Next to it there were two very small ones with their family name, different ages, same death day. This kind draws out a prayer with arms reaching in many directions.
There is perhaps no place where Sobriety itself rises so palpable and strong—not monstrous, nor even stern, but of humble aspect and great beauty—born there with her sister Hope when man sinned, and one of Wisdom’s wisest daughters. Her method of teaching, for those who will visit her, is quiet remembrance, full of holy fear and longing.
But since the Lord’s resurrection it has been rumored that she takes a bit of wine betimes, and, holding her Sister’s hand, dances gravely among the stones. Perhaps she laughs, too, but I have no reliable reports of that.
by Darryl Hart
I started spending time in cemeteries after learning that the subject of my dissertation, J. Gresham Machen, was buried in the city where I lived. I had actually known the whereabouts of his remains well before starting grad school, but only after becoming better acquainted with him did I feel the need to pay my respects.
A native of Baltimore and scion of a prominent legal family, Machen lived most of his adult life in Princeton and Philadelphia, where he taught New Testament first at Princeton Seminary and then at Westminster Seminary. When he died on January 1, 1937, he was buried with his family in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery, amid some of Baltimore’s wealthiest and most influential citizens.
For many years I would drag my wife to his grave on the anniversary of his death to lift a shot glass and say a prayer. As ghoulish as it might seem, I have since discovered the delights of other public cemeteries. Most of the faculty who instructed Machen, such as Benjamin Warfield, are buried in Princeton, New Jersey’s graveyard, along with notables such as Grover Cleveland, John Witherspoon, and Jonathan Edwards.
Finding those graves, positioned in seemingly random parts of the cemetery, is never easy. But the reward is a lesson that death humbles the most accomplished, and humbles even the efforts of descendents to honor them.
To my shame, though living in Philadelphia I have yet to explore the city’s own contribution to the rural cemetery movement, Laurel Hill. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century these rural cemeteries replaced the church graveyard as the resting place for wealthy Americans, and they captured a different regard for death.
The church graveyard reminded passersby of death’s finality and the ultimate questions posed by a person’s departure from this world. Its design and stark ornamentation expressed this, with images and texts on gravestones typically evoking the Last Day and the judgment that awaits all creatures who bear God’s image.
The rural cemetery presented a romantic view of death. It feted its inhabitants with monuments and stylized graves while segregating death in a preserve of natural beauty intentionally removed from harsher realities of everyday life.
So distant were the realities of this world—even death—that rural cemeteries, according to Blanche Linden Ward, were the Victorian version of public parks. Owing to their lush landscaping and ornate monuments, rural cemeteries “functioned as ‘pleasure grounds’ for the general public.”
This may have been their intent. Rural cemeteries do seem to undercut the sober truths conveyed by the church graveyard. No doubt, they also promote the accomplishments of the deceased in ways at odds with either the gospel’s call to humility or Scripture’s constant reminder of human frailty and feebleness.
An obvious complaint is that the rural graveyard, and its successor, the more efficient and less ornate lawn cemetery, hide eternal truths about death and judgment behind nature or art. Like nursing homes designed in the image of resorts, rural cemeteries divert the attention of visitors—for residents such diversions don’t work—from the finality and agony of death.
But in a culture where pleasures cannot be simple, where developers disregard the past in pursuit of prime real estate, and where the human body no longer stands at the pinnacle of the created order, the rural cemetery may have ironically filled a niche quite distinct from its creators’ intentions. If only for the health of urban centers, rural cemeteries have kept malls and condos at bay while preserving space for leisurely contemplation, maybe not of life’s ultimate purpose, but at least of what it might mean to have lived a good life.
Even better, the rural cemetery honors the human body. From body piercing to cremation, the leading cultural indicators do not indicate much respect for the one creature endowed with the image of God.
Of course, the rural cemetery does overestimate the accomplishments of the bodies assembled. But by devoting such care and space to the remains of men and women, boys, girls, and infants, these cemeteries are welcome reminders that the human body is not material to be disposed of but, in the words of the psalmist, the one part of creation made a “little less than God,” “crowned with glory and honor.”
The quote from Blanche Linden Ward is taken from her Silent City on a Hill (1989).
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor of Touchstone.
Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and is the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America (North Carolina) and A Student?s Guide to U.S. History (ISI Books). He is a member of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
Russell D. Moore is the author of Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. He lives with his family in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“Living Underground” first appeared in the September 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.