Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Swallowed Up in Victory
".. for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." Genesis 3:19
Have you noticed the way cemeteries have changed in the last 20 years? Before, the headstones were most often grey with black writing. Perhaps a carving of a flower or a cross would adorn the stone, and despite the different sizes or sculptures that would identify the stone of a more wealth or prominent person, they were all pretty much the same. Now, you will see all-out shrines in cemeteries. People pay for large, obstinate stones and decorate them to excess. For example, I live in a small town with a small cemetery, but in that cemetery now you will find a stone with an entire depiction of a carnival on the front, a stone that is 5 feet tall in the shape of two bucking broncos toughing hooves, and a stone with a carving of a face that is life-size. There are also graves that are covered, and that is not an exaggeration, with teddy bears, statuettes, pinwheels, pennies, and anything else that reminds people of the person in that grave. One couple has a deck of playing cards and a Scottish terrier on their stone. What people leave behind is a very good indication of what mattered to them in life, and sometimes that is a sad statement.
My husband and I frequently walk through cemeteries. There are the ethereal attractions- the quiet, the flowers, usually large and stately trees. But even with the appreciation of the beautiful there is an underlying darkness of truth in a cemetery that cannot be ignored. It causes personal reflection. If you are thinking too highly of yourself, this is a good place to be reminded how short and small your life is in contrast to the history of the world. There are so many graves of people who lived and died a long life before you were even born. If you need a reminder that things have not always been as they are now, look at the graves of all the children who died, sometimes many to a family, because of disease or calamity. Or the many headstones with three names- the original couple, and the second spouse after a death. These instances are very rare anymore. I personally like to see the headstones of couples that were many years apart in age, just because of the ability to relate to others like us. No matter what you are looking for or looking at in a cemetery, you cannot escape the reflection on your own life and eventual death.
"Weep ye not for the dead, neither bemoan him: but weep sore for him that goeth away: for he shall return no more, nor see his native country." Jeremiah 22:10
While in this cemetery, we passed a grave of a man about my age, who had two daughters, but no wife, mentioned on his stone. The headstone itself was very large, and it was covered on both sides with pictures, poems, and sentiments. Then the headstone was surrounded by a little picket fence and filled with white gravel. Inside that fence were decorative rocks with verses like “If tears could build a stairway…”, and “We little knew that morning…”. Then there was a bench over the grave site itself, with statuettes around the base and potted flowers outlining the plot. My immediate thought was that the family of this person must not have the hope of life after death. Now obviously we cannot know the state of any person other than ourselves and I am not in any way trying to pass judgment. But the evidence before me was overwhelming to that probability. First, we have the lack of any indication of this person’s faith. Symbols and verses cannot save a person, but generally a person who lived a life of faith will be remembered for that faith. I also saw in the overabundance of ‘things’ left at the grave that the family’s hope had died there as well. They were concentrating their focus on this six foot plot of ground where the body of this man was being turned back into earth. That is not anything substantial to hope in or look to.
After we had walked further down, two cars pulled in. They were both visiting the grave we had passed with the concentration of remembrances, and the older woman I guessed to be his mother. She took from her trunk fresh flowers, and I somehow got the idea this was a daily trip for her. She placed the flowers in their urn and sat on the bench and wept. With her was another young man, perhaps another son. He was silent and stoic, staring at the ground.
Obviously the point is to remember the person we have lost. Even the Bible discussed the ceremonial treatment of bodies of the deceased. Jacob (Israel) asked his sons to take him home to be buried with Rachel. Lazarus was prepared and laid in a tomb. The women were going to put spices on the body of Jesus. I am not suggesting that we throw people’s bodies in mass graves and never look back. But we cannot place our hope, our lives, into the contents of that grave. And if this is the last statement we have to make about our lives, what statement should we make?
The dead are soon forgotten. Even family members two generations from now will not remember that person. It is simply a name on a grave. A branch in the family tree. But that name has no real meaning. Even those who are remembered because of things they had done in life (military figures, celebrities, etc.) are remembered for a tiny fraction of their lives, and sometimes it is not even an accurate portrayal of who they truly were. In a very short time, the dead are forgotten. Even when we try to keep the memory alive, the earth works against us. Even the engravings on the stones are eventually worn away.
The mausoleum at the top of this post is down over a hill, away from the rest of the cemetery. We would not have ever known it was there if not for the part of the roof that was visible on the edge of the plots by the woods. Whomever placed it here could not have know that it would someday be forgotten, covered in vines and hidden by trees and brush at the bottom of a steep, wooded grade. It was surely magnificently beautiful in its day, and now it is worn and crumbling. And forgotten.
The front section of the cemetery was crowded with broken, illegible, faded stones. Those who placed them over the graves were intent on keeping them in good repair and showing their love for the people they lost by visiting them often. But as they passed on, the generations after them forgot, or did not know, these now anonymous people in the ground. No matter how much we might want to make the world remember those who are important to us, one day we will not be here to remind them. They will be forgotten.
That is a very hard fact to swallow at times. It is especially hard to accept when the sting of death is so fresh in our hearts. The person who was such an integral part of your life, who shaped and molded your thinking and doing, will be just a name to your descendants. Sometimes people are not even remembered at the time of their death.
This grave is of an unknown soldier, like the memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. The little cemetery where this man is buried is right next to a large field that was used for training the union troops during the civil war. This man died in the camp, whether of illness or an accident, and was buried here. Somehow, no one knew who he was or where he was from.
This girl is known as the ‘foster daughter of’. I wonder what caused her to be separated from her family, and if they ever went looking for her. Would this be enough evidence to find her? Were they already gone themselves?
What about those who die and are never found? There is nowhere for the family to go and remember. A life ended perhaps without anyone even knowing it. There are anonymous graves everywhere around us and we just don’t know it. What a sad thought, that people are lying somewhere and no one knows where they are. But there IS someone who knows where they are…
“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.” Psalm 139:7-8
No matter where we are, God can see us. And He will one day reveal all things, such as the place of interment for those who have died without anyone knowing where or why. And Revelations 20 promises us that the sea will give up its dead. One day, every person who ever lived will be found. That should make us joyful, considering the many mysteries death has held over all of history. But for some people, that will not be a joyful day. And this is where we come back to the people leaving their hope at the cemetery.
Did you ever wonder why God did not leave us the directions to the burial places of all the Bible heroes? Why is it that these very prominent people are buried in anonymous places in the earth? Because the focus should not be on where the body is buried, but where the soul is headed. Our bodies are dust, and they turn back into dust. Even with the advances in preservation of our day, decomposition is inevitable. Wherever Moses is interred, he is dust. King David’s splendor is now rotted and worthless. A grave is just a place to lay a body. At least, until the day that it will be resurrected.
Most people would be terrified of the idea of being in a cemetery when the graves open up and the dead arise. It is a common theme in horror movies for a body to come out and haunt the living, and it is successfully frightening to see on a screen. But it is not possible! Satan has never conquered death. Only Christ has conquered death, and one day he will put an end to dying forever. He will speak the words, and the dead shall rise and death will be no more. Rather than being a scary thought, if we were in a cemetery and the graves open up it would be a sign that our Messiah had returned. It would be a magnificent day.
“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” 1 Corinthians 15:26
“Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” 1 Corinthians 15:51-52
For those who know Jesus, death is merely the means to being with Him. Our funerals ought not be moments of great sorrow, but of rejoicing for the promised truth we have of resurrection. We ought not sit in the cemetery and weep, but go through all the world preaching the gospel, that as many as possible might be saved. We have no need to spend our time on the dead, but rather on the dying. We ought not fear death, for Christ has conquered it already!
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.” Philippians 1:21-24
If I die before the return of the Messiah to gather his people and judge the world, I do not wish for people to spend their time mourning over my corrupt body in the grave. I will soon be forgotten, and to that I say Amen. The only things worth remembering about me are the glimmers of Christ, which HE put there, and which will be resurrected, perfected, and taken home to heaven. Do not grieve for me, as I will not be in a position of needing sympathy. Instead, remember the quickness of life and spread the gospel to the perishing.
“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” 1 Corinthians 15:55
My husband and I had a conversation years ago about headstones and the waste of money so many of them are to try and hold on to what cannot be gotten back. I said originally I wanted no marker at all, or a stone that said “Herein lies dust.” But then we decided that rather than leave nothing at all, or worse a stone that means nothing to eternity but rather distracts attention from it, we would make our headstone a billboard, pointing the way to the Lord with the gospel message. And for as long as it stands before it falls over, or weathers into oblivion, people will know the only thing that ever mattered about our lives- we were redeemed by Christ!
“..Death is swallowed up in victory!!!!!!” I Corinthians 15:54