On graveyards

The overgrown churchyard of Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk.

Media vita in morte sumus - in the midst of life, we are in death, says the English funeral service of Thomas Cranmer. Nowhere is this seen better than in a churchyard, with the dead lying - with their feet to the east, ready to face the resurrection - around the church.  Yet this does not seem quite right: here, the dead are in the midst of the living. And in the churchyard grows rich and fecund nature, irrepressible despite attempts to hold it back.  Here there is a pathetic progression from the brightest clear-cut gravestones, honoured with carnations, back into the mottled old slabs of the previous generations, where the flowers fade and disappear.  Once they too were revered by those who now lie beside them - and we, the living, walk amongst them all -  in to the church and out to the village.  
In ancient times, the dead were always buried outside the walls of the city, and it was apparently not until St Cuthbert wrote to the Pope in 752 AD to ask permission to bury the dead around the church, following long monastic custom, whose close-knit community was seen as a special case.   
In the nineteenth century, graveyards centuries old literally overflowed, and new large cemetaries, especially in London, were set up to meet the need.  Quickly fashionable, and more dignified than the sometimes macabre situations in the old graveyards, they by their nature they lay away from the people who they served and perhaps led to the beginning of the schism that eventually arose between the living and the dead.  
I do not think that even the most ardent believer in the doctrine of the Resurrection believes that the dead will literally stand up on the last day to face their Redeemer - an example, if ever there was one, of what Stephen J. Gould once called ‘the representation of raw hope gussied up as rationalized reality’.  Even so, the churchyard stands as a reminder, not just of our common fate, but also of the ancient human belief that the dead, although gone, are not ended.  Of course, peoples of all ages from the Iliad onwards have had a peculiar horror of the terrible fate of the unburied. For a non-theist, this irrational view can be a poison, dripping a disregard of the here-and-now into life, and putting all our hopes into some conventiently hazy and unsupportable after-life. But for a theist, reverently walking amongst their dead, there is a different aesthetic.  For here is a reminder that the afterlife is not something entirely disconnected with this life - the dead do not lie in some remote and alien land.  Rather, they lie amongst us, and this surely reminds us that if we are to live again, that life too will be organically connected with our life here.  
The churchyard at Stoke-by-Nayland above is a beautiful place, where my mother lies.  I can think of no better remedy for someone suffering from the horror of death to come here and wander amongst the old stones and those they honour.  Here there is a calm trust carried down through the centuries that stands as a testimony against the materialist assurances of modern science.  
I am reminded of a story I read once, I wish I recall where, about a famous woman who before death declared that if there were any truth in the doctrine of the Resurrection, roses would burst forth on her grave - which of course they did.  The cultured mind will sneer at such superstition.  Sit, then, in Stoke-by-Nayland churchyard, and look awhile.


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