Back 40 to 50 years ago cemeteries were pieces of land I desperately tried to avoid. Following the death of my Uncle Lloyd when I was 10, and the death of my dad when I was 15, cemeteries brought back such painful memories. Despite all that, in my late teens I took the job on for cutting the grass at a local cemetery for a year. I needed the money. So I would go in, cut the grass as fast as I could. Then trimmed around the stones and get out before I got thinking much.
In my early 20’s when I was scrambling for work between casual construction jobs I ended up helping a man named Charlie dig graves for spring burials. This was definitely the last kind of work I wanted to be doing, but I was between a “rock and a hard place”. You see I was dating Charlie’s daughter Debbie. When Charlie asked “What I did for a living”, I stammered out that “I was working hard looking for work”. Charlie was more than pleased to take me on to help with the spring burials for the following few weeks. Physically it was not hard work, as nearly all the digging was with the backhoe that Charlie operated. He was extremely skilled. For me there was holding tape measures, rolling up sod at the beginning and being that extra set of eyes while the digging took place. After the burial there was levelling, raking and laying back down the sod. The hardest part for me was actually mentally shutting out what I was actually involved with doing.
There was one day I could not mentally shut things out however. It was the last burial of a three burial day. The grave hole preparations were made, and Charlie and I were parked inconspicuously across the road while the family burial would take place. They usually take 30 minutes, 40 minutes at the latest until everyone has departed. Then we go back over to finish our work. We were not paying much attention, so both of us jumped when one of the funeral directors tapped on the truck window after 5 minutes waiting in our new location. He asked if we could be acting pallbearers. The family tried hard to find someone able bodied to help, but could not. Charlie and I cleaned ourselves up the best we could and went over to help. There was a very frail, broken man in his 80’s who was burying his wife. There were two others, also appearing to be in their 80’s. Perhaps a sibling, or a close friend. The surviving husband was so incredibly appreciative and thankful for what we had done for him. This dear broken, grieving man kept sincerely thanking us again and again.
The reality of that experience hit me like a ton of bricks. When I got home, I went right to my room, crawled in to bed and cried and cried. I had tried so hard to push the reality of death away. But you can’t. It is all around us. My mom was a widow at 44, and for decades I used to accompany her to wakes and funerals of her friends who were dying off. Mom has been dead now for 8 years now. It is a strange feeling that I am now the older generation, and that my own friends are alarmingly dying off. Sometimes my wife is working or not available during a funeral or wake of one of my friends, and I will ask one of my kids for support by accompanying me. Their answer is always no, answering they did not know the person. I get it, because I have been there. But this is never easy for me.
It is normal for people to try to forget death. We try to cope with death by trying to pretend it does not exist. We even try to change the appearance of death by changing the wording. We change undertaker to mortician to funeral director. We change coffin to casket. We change died to passed away. Some cemeteries are changing their names to memorial parks. And funerals are making way for celebrations of life. We want to soften the reality of death. The current pandemonium with the COVID-19 is that death all of a sudden is right in our face. In high definition. In real time. And not acted out in a movie. We turn on our television it is there. On my MSN computer home page there is article after article on the spreading virus. And the rising death toll. The same goes with posts on social media. So we’re doing what we are told. We wash our hands regularly. We practice social distancing. We stay at home unless it is totally necessary to go out. Both to protect ourselves and to protect those we love who are most vulnerable from becoming infected. With the most vulnerable, this could lead to possible death.
It has only been the past eight or nine years I have been relaxed and comfortable in cemeteries. The reality of having to conduct funerals and burials for grieving families and decoration services for cemetery boards has forced me to face death for what it is. It is a reality. Billy Graham was once quoted as saying, ” Death is the most democratic experience in life, for we all participate in it”. Nowadays I no longer avoid cemeteries. Instead to the opposite I regularly visit different cemeteries to linger and read the tombstones. Each name represents a person’s life lived on this earth. Some names and dates represented people whose lives were like my dad. Snatched away in the prime of life when they were still desperately needed by their family. Leaving behind a sorrowing widow or widower and children.
What really jumps out at me are the vast number of lives cut short 100 years ago or more back in time. Including generations that lost many love ones during past pandemics. One tombstone at the Craighurst Presbyterian cemetery really jumped out at me. A family lost 3 children in a period of two and a half weeks from May 11, 1871 to May 28, 1871. The caretaker of the cemetery, who also happens to be a historian told me the cause was Black Diphtheria. Long before I was born, when my dad bought his farm back in the late 1940’s and got married, mom would not move in to the farmhouse until it was first fumigated. The house had been sitting empty for a few decades. The last previous people living there was a family where several members lost their lives to tuberculosis. And the house was abandoned.
Modern vaccines have eliminated many of those frightening viruses and illnesses such as Black Diphtheria and Tuberculosis. What makes COVID-19 unique is that there is no current vaccine available. So we social distance ourselves to prevent the spread. We wash our hands frequently. Only non-essential businesses remain open. We are trying to do what is known as “flattening the curve”. And countries are closing borders to prevent continuous movement of the virus across it’s borders. When we return from another country we self-isolate for 14 days. For a world that is very mobile, this is a huge adjustment. An article titled The History of Pandemics mentions “The practice of quarantine began during the 14th century, in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Cautious port authorities required ships arriving in Venice from infected ports to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. I double checked on Google translator, and the origin of the word quarantine is from the Italian “quaranta giorni”, or 40 days”. Whether a 14 day shutdown for schools and non-essential businesses in my province of Ontario is enough to turn things around is yet to be determined.
It is wonderful to see good news stories through all this. People are realizing we not invincible and are reaching out to one another. Across the planet, there is what is known as local “viral kindness” Facebook groups springing up by the hundreds. If we can understand death and get a proper perspective on it, it will help us to fully live. The Bible has a lot to say about death. Death is an enemy of mankind and God. In the beginning of the Bible it talks about a place called the Garden of Eden. There was no pain, no tears, no suffering. Mankind was perfect in a perfect environment. But people had a will of their own and they rebelled against God. That rebellion is called sin. Because of sin, death came. And death reigns over the entire human race. Modern medicine may be able to postpone it. But death is still inevitable.
Even though our church in Hillsdale is temporarily closed do to COVID-19 does not mean God is closed. It is still the glorious season of Lent. We are continuing on our journey towards Easter, and it is Week #5. Our Scripture is that amazing passage from John 11:1-45 where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus had been dead for three days and it seemed like all hope was lost. Then Jesus speaks these amazing words, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”. Then Jesus commands Lazarus to “Come forth”.
Easter is all about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus had to die to pay the penalty for our sins so we could live. Then on Easter Sunday Jesus rose from the grave to conquer death. I can’t remember the source, but quite a while ago I remember reading an article where the author suggested five things that ought to be done about death. It went something like this. First accept the fact that you will die. Second (which hit home for me) if you are over 50 to make arrangements for the mechanics of dying. Third, make provision for those you are leaving behind (check your insurance). Fourth make a will. And the fifth went something like: “make an appointment with God, but I’m not sure how to suggest you do it”.
In the Bible there is this amazing verse from John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. One thing I often notice in my quiet walks through cemeteries is the headstones nearly always face east. Have you ever wondered why headstones in Christian cemeteries face east? It is based on the verse Mathew 24:27 that Jesus is coming again from the East, and flashing to the West like lightning”.
There is a day coming when Jesus Christ will come again and reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Everything that resists the will of God will be destroyed. And I love what it says in 1 Corinthians 15:26, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death”. Those who have put their trust in Jesus Christ will one day be given new bodies. Those bodies will be glorious, powerful, spiritual, immortal, imperishable, sin-proof, age-proof and death-proof. Whether the day of my death happens tomorrow, or twenty years from tomorrow, I am ready and anticipating my appointment with God. My prayer is that you will be ready to make that same appointment.
Video from You Tube: Lauren Daigle titled Rescue (Official Music Video)