On Life and Death and Flowery Graves

My husband and I picked out our grave plots this last week. 

We have not been diagnosed with terminal illness, nor do we expect to die suddenly. Either of course might happen, but so far God has blessed us with many years of life on this earth and our ailments are part of natural aging, my sixty-six years, and my husband’s seventy-eight. 

But I wanted to know where my body would be lying. I did not want cremation, although many do and I respect their choice. It’s cheaper, to be sure. But I wanted “full body burial” as the Family Service Counselor described it at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Lafayette, California. I wanted to give witness, after I was gone, to the sanctity of life, even my little life; I wanted to join the many other believers who lay under this flowery field in the East Bay hills. Their graves lay neatly in rows, some with flat headstones, some with upright blocks of granite or marble that caught the light from the morning sun. 

It is curious how long I have put off this trip to the cemetery. It was always something I could do another day, another week, another year. But I didn’t want to leave these decisions to my sons and daughters; I wanted to personalize my sacred journey from earthly life to heavenly life. The word “cemetery” comes from the Greek, “sleeping place,” and I would give witness to eternal life and the immense love of God as I lay sleeping, awaiting the final resurrection. 

We followed our counselor, a young, endearing, and informative guide, across the broad lawns that were browning slightly from California’s drought and the wintry air, up the paths that parted the graves. As I stepped carefully, meditatively, I was reminded of other graves I have visited, in particular that of Raymond Raynes in the Mirfield Monastery in northern England. The monks’ graves in the garden of the Community of the Resurrection had been marked with simple wooden crosses bearing first names. We found Father Raynes’ grave and said a prayer of thanksgiving for his saintly life. Now, walking through the Queen of Heaven garden, I recalled other cemetery gardens: one beloved collection of graves on a hilltop on the Island of Lanai, where Cook pines rustled in the breeze high above, the sea far below; English headstones in the yard of St. Mary Magdalene, Oxford, untended, with high grass obscuring the stone slabs; the many churches we visited in Europe surrounded by their living dead, who waited for that last resurrection.

Here, today, in this country, it seems that churches do not sit amidst their dead, sheltered and sheltering their own past, but send the bodies to be buried elsewhere. There is a fear of morbidity, of corruption, of dying. Gravestones identify our birth-day and our death-day, with our lifetime equaling a long dash. We must admit, in a cemetery, that we are mortal. We must admit that the young and the good die and leave us far too soon. We must admit that cancer ravages and war maims and we mistreat one another. We must admit that we do not love enough. These are hard admissions in a world that values self-esteem, self-obsession. 

Queen of Heaven Cemetery sits in a gentle valley. I looked up to the low January sun and to the hills holding us so sweetly in the cool breeze. We needed to choose our gravesites, and I prayed for guidance even in this simple choice. We had seen the gravesites available and had weighed this and that – the sun, the hills, the trees, accessibility to the path. Should we face north, south, east, west? Do we want a bench? I gazed over the flowery field, the reds and pinks and yellows dotting the grass, the headstones seeming a comfortable and welcoming congregation of hosts.

Where should we be? Which plots? My eye rested finally on a statue with raised arms commanding the heavens and blessing the flowery graves. It was the Risen Christ. I bounded across the grass and stood before it, looking up to the powerful face that looked further up to the blue skies. Yes, I thought. I want to be under the arms of the Risen Christ. If anyone should visit my grave, they would see the Risen Christ alongside and over me and raising me to heaven with him.

And so it was that we found two plots a few feet from Christ’s right arm. And when visitors, if any should come, sit on the bench nearby they will see the Christ silhouetted against the blue sky and the golden hills.

I’m glad I didn’t put this cemetery visit off any longer. A curious peace and delight has settled over me since we drove away, having made the arrangements. For me, my own death makes my life even more meaningful, for the numbered days are just that – numbered. It is tempting to live as though this will never happen and many of us do this, acting as if today will last forever. But this is not reality. This is not the true way of things for humankind. So I am glad to have bracketed my days with this visit to Queen of Heaven so that each moment given me between now and my final visit is not wasted, so that each moment counts, just as it is counted. 

The field of flowers and their stones, winter’s grass waiting for spring’s greening, and finally the Risen Christ, his arms at once embracing heaven and earth, has entered my mind, unbidden, from time to time since then. The scene is a reassuring visitor, a happy moment that colors my days. It is a sudden, surprising burst of grace. For because I am a believing Christian, trying to be faithful, those arms, as they embrace heaven and earth, also embrace little me, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, forever.

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