Unity in Death

I suppose this may sound morbid, but when I travel abroad I enjoy visiting cemeteries. It is not because I am fond of death. Rather, I am interested in how cultures honor and think about death. The graveyards of England and Ireland are replete with Christian symbols and ancient Celtic themes. The Christian cross is ever present and communicates to the visitor the importance of the sacrifice of Christ in the redemption story. The places of the dead are almost always attached to a church (until recently), and the stones and monuments are rarely in perfect condition. Weeds, grasses and vines live amongst the tombs. I find them to be uniquely spiritual places.

In London, there is one cemetery (among many) that always draws my attention – Bunhill Fields in the central part of the city. The site is now managed as a public garden, but in the 17th and 18th centuries it was the main burial place of “dissenters” or nonconformists. When you initially hear the word “dissenter” (if you are not a historian), you probably think of individuals who fought the political system and lost, resulting in burial in isolated places away from the rest of the community. While certainly there were places for those who disagreed with the political systems of their day, Bunhill was a place reserved for those who disagreed with the state church – in this case, the Anglican Church. Their resting place fell outside the city walls away from the rest of the community.

It is difficult for citizens of 21st-century secular societies to understand why anyone would care where someone is buried. It was a vitally important consideration for many cultures in the past. Throughout much of the history of Ireland and England, the church, either in Catholic or Anglican form, was at the center of all life. When you were born your initiation into the community was through the church, and when you died the church – the “official Church” –conducted the rites that took you into the next life. If you disagreed with the established church, you were not allowed to partake of its rituals nor be buried in its “holy ground.” Leaving the church was a difficult decision for any person because, in the end, it meant that you were no longer a part of the earthly or eternal community.

In the middle of the 16th century new religious thinkers emerged who challenged the received wisdom of the Anglican Church in England. They included the Separatists, Baptists and Methodists, among many. It would be difficult to discuss what united these groups, but many emphasized the experience of the Holy Spirit in determining God’s direction in this life and the next. Bunhill holds the graves of John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress), Susannah Wesley and Isaac Watts, the great hymn writer. Indeed, much of American Protestantism owes its existence to people buried in Bunhill.

If you walk about 200 meters past Bunhill, you will find another place that does not look like any burial ground you may have seen. It looks like a simple park, but if you look closely you see a small brick building and a sign – “Quaker Gardens.” In the corner of the garden is one gravestone sealed into the wall – “George Fox.” This is the place where thousands of the early Friends were buried. There are no markers (with the exception of the George Fox marker, which was placed later) because the Quakers wanted their cemetery to reflect their understanding of God’s work in their lives. In an age of inequality, Quakers were committed to the Christian belief expressed by Paul in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Thousands of Quakers were buried together in the site near Bunhill Field, and there are no markers, no crosses and no distinguishing markers to identify the most “important people.” In Christ, all are valuable and all are made one in death and in the life to come.

Burial places often say a lot about what a community values in life. The Quakers’ commitment to Christ’s presence and the importance of each person was reflected in the garden they established, and it still gives a clear testimony today.

Levi Pennington formally wrote down many of his benedictions (apparently he was often asked to close a Friends service), and you can find a nice collection in our archives. As I thought about the Friends commitment to unity, I especially liked this prayer – “Help us, our Father, as we seek to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace to remember that if we are close to Thee we cannot be far from one another. Help us to remember when we seek to be at unity with other people that we can find that unity in loyalty to Jesus Christ better than any other way. Amen.”

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