I suppose that cemeteries would not be on the list of most people’s favorite places to visit. We live in a culture that worships youth, and I think we would prefer not to be reminded that all of us will meet death at some point. The cemetery is a place of darkness and foreboding. We might visit on Veterans Day or Memorial Day, but linger amongst the dead . . . walk silently amidst the stones? Unlikely.
When I travel, particularly to England, I enjoy going to cemeteries. Now you might say, “Well, that makes sense,” because you knew there was something that was weird about me!
Throughout much of history, most human communities believed in an afterlife and burial places became important symbols of passage. Some communities burned the dead in ceremonies and others buried loved ones often with cultural icons and items that were symbols of life. Obviously the wealthy were honored in elaborate ways, as evidenced by the pyramids of Giza, the tombs of the Kings of Europe, and the burial places of the Chinese Emperors. Today, these are still places of pilgrimage. Perhaps, most importantly, the places of the dead were not places to fear but centers of celebration and honor. Our ancestors lived in a spiritual world and the dead were still a part of the community.
When you visit old Christian churches in Europe, the burial places surround the church. In fact, at C.S. Lewis’ local parish church, you walk through the graveyard as you prepare to enter the church. When you came to worship you were constantly reminded of human frailty. For us moderns and post-moderns, the place of death is one to avoid. You do not want to be reminded of the fact that you will die because the culture no longer recognizes the importance of the spiritual world. It wishes to pretend that if we just give science enough time, it will discover the fountain of youth and we will indeed live forever! I think that is perhaps why present cemeteries have become sterile places with tombstones and monuments that tell us little about the people who are buried there.
I love cemeteries because they convey a sense of how cultures wish to remember their loved ones. Words on the stones are chosen carefully and intentionally and the symbols on the stones provide connections to the people who are buried there. Old cemeteries also have a unique beauty that is a product of the headstones and the trees and plants that surround them. Finally, I have rarely found cemeteries to be places of “noise.” They are almost always places of quiet and reflection, even when they are situated amidst a very busy city.
While I was in Oxford and London, I took the opportunity to visit the graves of Lewis and Tolkien, the cemetery of St. Cross, and Highgate Cemetery in north London. I enclose several pictures that illustrate the uniqueness of these cemeteries in London.
You will note that the sextons often let the flora and fauna grow fairly unchecked in England, and that gives St. Cross and Highgate a very natural atmosphere to them. The Celtic cross is a common gravestone in England, and many of them are very detailed; they have ancient Christian symbols embedded on them (HIS and XP), representing the centrality of Christ to the deceased’s life. A circle also surrounds the upper cross and gives it a very different visual image from the Latin cross. The Celtic crosses often have scenes from important parts of the Bible and suggest the importance of the Christian story to the culture. Walking amidst the crosses gives me a sense of connection to the past – to my ancestors, who where English.
The words on the headstones also convey themes of significance. On Lewis’ tomb is the inscription from Shakespeare: “Men must endure their going hence.” For Lewis, death was indeed something to endure, to suffer through in order to emerge in the real world in the presence of Christ. Tolkien is buried with his wife, Edith, and he had written “Beren and Luthien” on the headstone. Tolkien modeled the love story of Beren and Luthien on his own relationship with his wife and his deep love for her was always evident. Charles Williams, another member of the Inklings group who is buried in St. Cross, simply has the words “Under the Mercy” engraved, symbolizing the importance of God’s mercy in his life. In the Quaker cemetery in London, there is just one headstone, which reads “All one in death.”
“At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”
When I walk through the cemetery, I share a little with those who have come before. But primarily, I begin to smell “the freshness and purity of the morning” and long for the time I will see God face to face. The great saints in the past thought of them as “thin” places where the distance between heaven and earth was ever so slight!