As a minister I am frequently in cemeteries. When officiating at a graveside service I usually arrive a early enough to wander around and read the various markers. Rather than finding this to be depressing, I find the experience to be strangely comforting. For me, it’s a good “reality check.” Here are a few lessons that I take from these walks.
Lesson One: From dust you come, unto dust you shall return. (Genesis 3: 19) The story my be apocryphal but I once read that the late Charles DeGaulle and his wife had a special needs child. As was often the case in the 1950s, the child died at an early age. On the way from the church to the cemetery DeGaulle and his wife sat in silence in the back of the limousine. As they turned into the cemetery lane DeGaulle’s wife broke the silence and saying that she wished that their little one could have been like everyone else, meaning “normal.” DeGaulle didn’t respond at first. He continued to look out the window, staring at the markers they passed on the way to the final resting place for this precious child of theirs. When the limousine stopped DeGualle, still looking out the window with a far away look in his eyes said, “Well, now she is. Now she is like everyone else.” In the end, we are all alike. We are all special. We are all precious in the sight of God..
Lesson Two: I find mausoleums depressing. I have been in some beautiful mausoleums over the years but I have also seen many that have outlived their endowment. They leak and crumble and be a shadow of their former self.
Ultimately, everything that we build crumbles. Jesus got crossways with religious authorities in Jerusalem when he reminded them that the Temple of which they were so proud would one day be nothing more than a pile of ruble. Even without the intervention of the Romans, this would have been true. Nothing we build lasts forever. The grandest cathedrals become naked skeletons and then a pile of stones. The things of this world are not permanent. The sooner we learn this, the better off we will be.
Lesson Three: Sooner or later we are faint shadows in history. The day will come when no one will remember us.
About a year ago I walked through an old cemetery adjacent to a small rural congregation I first served. At the highest point of the cemetery there is marker that rises above all of the other markers. It stands there majestically like the Washington Monument rises into the D. C. skyline. The person buried beneath the marker died in the 1830s. I recalled as a young minister still being able to read the name, the date of birth and the date of death as well as a verse or two of Scripture etched on the stone. But when I visited this cemetery this time, all of that was gone. The winds and rain and lichen had taken its toll. Whoever was buried beneath the stone was no longer legible.
So it will be for us. I know only a couple of stories of my paternal great grandfather and fewer still of his father. That’s about as far back as my family legacy goes. I can’t even go back three generations with my maternal grandparents. Only a handful of people are remembered a thousand years after they completed this part of life. Why do we think that it will be any different for us?
The wisdom of my faith reminds me not to worry so much about the future or try to hold on to past memories. Instead, I am called to live, as best as I can, in the present. That is hard for me because I am a bit of a dreamer and a romantic. But the present is really all that I have. It is all that you have, too. Everything else is ethereal, imaginary, not really real. But the Present, now that is something else. That’s what it is called the Precious Present!
So, let’s not take ourselves so damn seriously. Lighten up. And don’t worry so much about making memories for others. Trust me, they will have their own memories of us. Love, laugh, cry, feel, enjoy this thing called life. If you can do this, you will not only see but you will be a glimpse of grace.