Twice in the space of a week I have found myself reflecting on big questions while standing in a graveyard.
Last week I took my mother up to Scotland for a brief visit to the village she grew up in. In between visits to living relatives, we took a tour around the cemetery. It was a very weird feeling for me to be in a place where four of my actual relatives are laid to rest and at least four or more ‘near relatives’whose stories and affection for me formed part of my childhood.
This wouldn’t be a strange experience, I guess, for anyone born and brought up in the same place as their family generations before them. However I have never had a sense of belonging geographically anywhere, an internal dislocation brought about by the frequent relocations of my early life. It did dawn on me though, that if I were to have a “childhood home” this village in Scotland (Dalry) would be a strong contender: I was taken there as an infant, I started primary school near there, then I went back around the age of nine and then again at 13.
But I’d never been to the cemetery before and I have to admit that standing in front of my grandparents graves at the age I am now (54), having no recollection of either of these two genetically close relatives, was a really weird experience.
I felt like I ‘ought’ to feel something.
But I didn’t. I know celebrities get all weepy over the graves of long lost great grandparents on shows like ‘Who do you think you are?‘ so I felt vaguely guilty at my lack of emotion. I’d love to have grandchildren one day so it shocked me slightly that I should feel so indifferent at the grave of my own grandmother. But you can’t miss something you never had.
In fact it was another random grave that moved me more. Just look at the dates here and work out the story for yourself:
1,2,3,4… 5 infants/children and none of them made it passed six years old. Heart-breaking!
So many stories summed up on one stone. And so many life stories told on stones all around me. “Surely” I found myself thinking “there must be a better way to be remembered?”
And one thing is for sure, we all want to be remembered. Graveyards and gravestones are not a recent part of history. The great and the good, largely those who could afford it, have always built stone memorials, burial mounds or even whacking great pyramids to mark their final resting place.
Not that any of that does any good: within only half a century a grave can fall into this kind of disrepair or neglect.
But regardless of the futility of our desire to be remembered, we nevertheless continue in this desire.C. S Lewis spoke about what our desires might reveal when he wrote “I have found a desire within myself that no experience in this world can satisfy; the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”
The writer of Ecclesiastes said that God our Creator had “set eternity” in our hearts. I think that says something profound about us as human beings. You can talk about the decline in religion all you want but the vast majority of people would still say that this life is not all there is. Even though they may have only the most hazy of ideas about eternity, most of us cannot stomach the meaninglessness that results from beliefs such as ‘when you’re dead you’re dead’ or ‘you are just a bunch of cells and chemicals’.
One thing that came home to me through these graveyard reflections: I am not the sum of my genetic inheritance. Inevitably I will have been shaped by persons unknown to me but my true identity is as a child of God. I am named and known by him. I will be remembered not by virtue of any stone monument or achievement such as fame or wealth. I will be remembered in the same way that the thief on the cross was remembered when he turned to Jesus and said “Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom”.
When all traces of my life have been washed away like a picture drawn in the sand when the tide comes in, the one who has put eternity in my heart will keep my heart for eternity.And my life will flourish and go on beyond the grave…
For now my calling is to live gratefully, to enjoy the fruits of life, the gift of each day and to acknowledge my Creator.