I have an annual tradition that some people think is a little morbid: I visit a cemetery on the feast of All Souls, march up and down the rows, read the inscriptions, and pray for those who lie there as well as my own loved ones who beat me to heaven.
It’s actually a pretty Benedictine thing to do, and since I’m a Benedictine oblate, that matters to me. Benedict told us to “keep death daily before our eyes.” I can’t think of a better place to do it than a cemetery, nor a better day.
In recent years, with my move to Sturgeon Bay, I’ve taken my walk in the Catholic cemetery, since I’m more apt to recognize names there than at any of the other ones. But in my former Minnesota town, the Catholic section was part of the general cemetery, so I could read the epitaphs of fellow church members as well as those from other churches or no churches at all. I liked the idea that some of those might be getting prayers for the dead for the first time, if they came from a faith tradition that doesn’t believe in that sort of thing. I like to think that they know better now, and are grateful.
It nearly always rains on this day–or, in Minnesota, snows–for some reason that probably has to do with the season, but which still seems spiritually appropriate. And yet, a sunny day wouldn’t seem amiss, either, since this is a day about hope, about the communion of saints, about not letting death keep us from looking out for each other. It’s about the mercy of God, and the camaraderie of those who belong to him. It’s about joy.
Standing there in the midst of those silent graves, reading names and dates both ancient and recent, I feel the joy. They have, hopefully, gone home, have finished the journey, have been reunited with those who went before, and with the God who has been waiting. Sounds like a reason to celebrate to me.
While St. Benedict advised us to keep death before our eyes as a reminder that this world isn’t all there is and that we’re not the center of it, another Benedict, Pope Benedict XVI, said something pretty inspiring about cemeteries that I read just yesterday:
“The cemetery, the site of mourning and transience, has become a place of hope. Whoever has himself buried here thereby says: I believe you, Christ, who rose from the dead. I hold fast to you. I do not come alone in the mortal loneliness of those who cannot love. I come in the communion of saints, who even in death do not leave me…
“So the message of the cemetery is manifold. It reminds us of death and of eternal life. But it speaks to us, also, precisely of our present, everyday life. It encourages us to think of what passes and what abides. It invites us not to lose sight of standards and the goal. It is not what we have that counts but rather what we are for God and for man. The cemetery invites us to live in such a way that we do not leave the communion of saints. It invites us to seek and to be in life what can live on in death and in eternity.”
That’s what I love about this feast, and that’s not morbid at all.