The Truth About Cemeteries

After a few miles of bouncing down red dirt roads, you’d spy through the strands of rusted barbed wire a congregation of weathered headstones standing like sentries in the Oklahoma ground. A stone's throw from the cemetery, shrouded beneath decades of undergrowth, are the charred remains of the sanctuary that lightning lit up back in '43. The moon and stars still rule the sky when the first worshipers step out of their cars and pickups onto this rustic acre of sacred soil. We take our places beneath a lone tree, the roots of which wrap round the entombed saints like a mourner his lost love. Later there will be laughter as boys and girls hunt a rainbow of eggs, but now hushed voices await the first hint of the golden sphere peeking over the eastern horizon that marks the genesis of this most holy day.

Most journeys to graveyards are mournful affairs. And there are tears this day also, for the dirt mounded over some graves is all too fresh. There lies a mother who lost a long battle with breast cancer, a son who fell asleep behind the wheel, a baby who never discovered the joy of unwrapping Christmas presents. And blanketed beneath the same soil are the bodies of loved ones, long dead but perpetually fresh in the memory of those who still remember the sound of their laughter, or the taste of their kisses.

If life were defined by memory, a cemetery would be the most vivacious locale on earth.

But today, some tears notwithstanding, this small band of believers have come not to mourn. They’ve come to crash death’s party, and to inject into the foe’s celebratory bash a healthy dose of funereal realism. You see, the graveyard is death’s trophy case, his wall of fame, in which he boasts of his conquests. Every tombstone is, for him, a middle finger raised toward the heavens, an in-your-face mockery of the God who once enlivened these corpses. He got to some sooner, he got to others later, by eventually he got to them all. He won. And this dirt steeped with decomposition is proof, silencing all opposition.

Only it doesn’t, for out of the mouths of these opposition forces, gathered on enemy turf, comes the defiant declaration of death’s undoing: “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!” An audacious act it is, to march smack dab into the middle of a place that screams, “Dead!” and to sing, “Alive!” A confidence not of this world compels them to speak, indeed, to sing out, to ring out, the truth, despite every earthly evidence to the contrary. It is confidence borne from the man they worship as God, who spent three days dead in a tomb, and came out alive again, thereby transforming the whole history of the world, for he left death dead and defeated in his own abandoned grave. And to those who believe in him, this Jesus promises that these graves are but temporary beds, in which their bodies rest in peace, sleeping until the day of their very own Easter.

Therefore, Christians do not speak of these graves as a “final resting place.” It is their temporary abode, until the Lord of life reinvigorates and glorifies their bodies, transforming their tombstones into champagne corks, popping off to release them from the bottled earth. For this is a cemetery, a word borrowed from Greek, which does not mean “place of the dead” but “place of the sleeping,” even as St. Paul writes of those who have “fallen asleep in Jesus,” (1 Thess 4:14). With their Lord now, they await the day of awakening, when the alarm clock of a celestial trumpet will rouse them to resurrection.

But for now, those who live by faith and not by sight, these saints of St. Paul Lutheran Church, in the tiny town of Wellston, Oklahoma, make their annual pilgrimage to this “sleeping place,” this cemetery, to sing the songs of Easter, to pray to their living Lord, and to gaze out over this field of death, and to see therein, a haven of hope.