“Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” John 11:25
Anyone who has lived in rural Ireland, North or South, will know how important funerals are to us, how important it is to attend funeral services, how important it is to visit and care for graves. We will all be familiar with stories of trouble that has been caused when people feel there has not been proper respect for burial places.
To explore the question, perhaps it is helpful to think about graves not here in Ireland, but in the war cemeteries of France and Belgium, places which are treated with a profound reverence, where even conversations are spoken in hushed voices.
Standing in a war graves cemetery in Northern France last April, a group of us paid our respects to a man who had left his family’s farm in the Irish midlands to volunteer for service in the British army and who had served with both Irish and English regiments before being killed in action a month before the 1918 armistice. It was thought unlikely that any member of the soldier’s family would ever have had the opportunity to visit the grave, so it was felt important that we do more than pass it by. We stood solemnly as Binyon’s “Ode to the Fallen” was recited and, after a silence, the words used in the Kohima Epitaph were spoken.
As we were about to disperse, an unexpected thing happened. A man who had grown up on a neighbouring farm, and who had known the fallen soldier’s brother, stepped forward and knelt before the headstone. He took from his pocket a tiny phial of soil he had brought from the soldier’s family farm and poured it onto the grave, then refilled the phial from the soil that surrounded the headstone to take back to the farm in Ireland. It was probably irregular, if not actually illegal, for such a thing to have happened, yet it was a gesture so profound that it would have taken a hard-hearted person to have raised questions.
None of us present could have articulated the significance of what had taken place, but we knew it was about a sense of something sacred; that the land of the farm from which the soldier had come had become seen as sacralized, made sacred, by generations of sweated labour, and that the soil in which he had been buried had, for his neighbour, become sacred through the presence of the man’s body.
Lest there be a temptation to regard such thought and behaviour as something peculiar to Irish people, to think it a moderate reflection of the thinking of John B. Keane’s character “The Bull” McCabe in Keane’s play “The Field,” it is worth examining Brooke’s poem “The Soldier”. Read Brooke’s poem and there is a sense that he would have understood well a man who brought soil from Ireland to exchange it for soil from France. In his lines he expresses a belief that the soil in which he will be buried will be transformed by his presence, a presence that itself been shaped by the English soil from which he had come. The lines are familiar:
If I should die, think only this of me;
that there’s some corner of a foreign field
that is for ever England. There shall be
in that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
a dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
a body of England’s breathing English air,
washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
“In that rich earth, a richer dust concealed”, Brooke sees the presence of mortal remains as somehow transforming the place. If a soldier’s burial has a transformative power, have other burials a similar capacity to alter the nature of the place in which they have taken place? Does transformation demand blood sacrifice, or is human presence itself enough to effect change?
Here in rural Ireland, where church closures in the past have brought visceral reactions, including violent threats, to church leaders, we need to understand the deep feelings that are unexpressed. Official church teaching and popular sentiment diverge sharply when it comes to buildings and burial places. While the church might adhere to the words of Jesus in Saint John Chapter 4, that worship is not about any place, but something that is done in spirit and in truth; popular feeling is much more likely to reflect verses from the book Exodus, and other Hebrew Scriptures, that speak of places as holy ground.
Perhaps the church is guilty of double standards. How many church leaders would deny that the cemeteries in France and Flanders are sacred? Yet if cemeteries among “foreign” fields are sacred places, then why not those at home? Does the violent death of young men grant a sacredness to a site that is not made possible through the burial of generations of good and faithful people? When contemplating church closures, did our church leaders consider that the withdrawal from a building may be perceived as a desacralisation as likely to cause offence in our communities, as the abandonment of a war graves cemetery? Not because of the building, but because our loved ones have been buried there and because we await the day of resurrection.
Our thinking reflects the belief of Martha in Saint John Chapter 11 Verse 24. Jesus says to Martha in Verse 24 that Lazarus will rise again and Martha replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Even our graveyards are laid out to reflect this hope, the headstones facing east so that the people may the rising sun. The idea that there was a period of waiting between dying and the last day led the church in medieval times to develop beliefs in purgatory and limbo. It led to the idea that the dead needed our prayers and it led to people paying for masses for the dead.
Hebrews Chapter 9 Verse 27 has often been used as a text to argue against the medieval beliefs, “And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgement”, but Verse 27 that says that death is followed by judgement is immediately followed by Verse 28, which says, “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” The idea that people are waiting for the second coming suggests our loved ones are somewhere that is not yet heaven.
Perhaps our understanding would become clearer if we understood the idea of space-time. Hermann Minkowkski, Albert Einstein’s mathematics professor, Minkowski saw space and time as being not separate, but being one thing. If we think about space and time being like a single book where the story unfolds within the pages but where someone from outside sees it all at once, we get some clue. Einstein, Minkowski’s most famous pupil, “For us physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion.” What Einstein seems to say is that space and time were complete in a single moment. If one was able to look at the Universe from the outside, one would see not only the whole of space, but also the whole of time, for the two are one.
When we die, we move outside not just this earthly world, but outside of time as well. There is no waiting for the last day for outside of time everything is complete, the last day is always present, the resurrection has happened. We can maintain our graves as a mark of our love and as a mark of our respect for our loved ones, but there is no need for worry or for prayers for them, for who in the Lord’s presence would need our prayers?
The book of the Revelation Chapter 14 Verse 13 says, “‘Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labours.'” To be blessed is to be happy, may we have confidence that is so.