Burial Gardens: Life and Death in Lent

Last year, during the Lent that still hasn’t ended, I took my children on a walk to the local cemetery. The grounds were beautiful and included a small pond accessible only by a simple wooden bridge on one side and a more ornate stone bridge on the other. The cemetery was nearly as old as the city of Concord, New Hampshire, where we lived, and half of it had once belonged to our parish. The dates went back well into the early 1800s. We walked past the modern office building and climbed the now-uneven granite steps that wound up and in among the graves. Some were mausoleums, there to remember important figures now long forgotten. Others were simple tombstones embedded in the ground whose names, overgrown with moss and grass and worn away by time, were barely visible.

A few months prior, when I first took my children there and explained to them what it was, they decided to name it a burial garden. I liked that name. It reminded me of 1 Corinthians 15. In this chapter, often overlooked for the much more generally pleasing 1 Corinthians 13, Paul lays out for us why it is necessary for Christ to have been risen from the dead. Apparently, some in Corinth were beginning to deny that any resurrection could occur. But Paul points out that if there is no resurrection, then Christ has not been resurrected. If Christ has not been resurrected, then we are still in our sins.

But then Paul goes on to talk about why our own resurrection is so important. He compares us to plants growing. Seeds “die” when they are sown and grow into something new and beautiful and wonderful. So, our “fleshly” bodies too must die and be buried in order to grow into our new, effoliating, resurrected bodies. He tells us, “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44) We are weak at present, we know this because we die. Death even dishonours us because it is not how we are meant to live. But God can use even this to show us the beauty of the resurrection. So, when my children called the cemetery the burial gardens, I thought it so fitting to think of graveyards as giant vegetable or flower beds. The seeds have been sown and now they are waiting for the day when they’ll burst forth into new life. After all, as Paul proclaims:

“Where, O death, is your victory?
“Where, O death, is your sting?”

Of course, this hope doesn’t make the present reality any less real. We’re currently looking at over a half a million United States citizens dead from COVID-19. Our loved ones have died in the midst of a plague, and we find ourselves in mourning. This is good. Death is a thing to be mourned, though not feared. During Lent the phrase memento mori is on the lips of most Catholics. Remember you will die! We have little need of that reminder this year as people around the world are dying from this pandemic. And so, we mourn. We mourn for those who should not have died yet, but for this disease. We mourn for the lives cut short, for those who lived long but died alone because restrictions would not allow their loved ones to be near. We are supposed to mourn death. It isn’t the end God made us for. And we can be angry that some people and policies may have made this pandemic worse than it needs to be. But we must remain hopeful, and we must not fear. Death has been defeated.

As my boys and I walked through the burial gardens in that Lent that has never ended, my son Theodore did something unexpected. He knelt down in front of a tombstone and prayed “The Hail Mary.” This was completely unprompted. He was even attending a public school at the time, so it wasn’t as though he was getting this from his teachers. And I hadn’t suggested it. He just decided to start praying for the dead. I was moved to tears by this act of devotion from my five-year-old. Out of the mouths of babes, as the Scriptures say.

So, now we’re in a new Lent, and there is hope on the horizon. Not just the hope of vaccines and a return to some kind of normalcy, but the hope that Lent leads us to, the hope of Easter. There have been times over the past year where I have given into despair and pessimism. But thinking back on that sunny day in the cemetery, I remember the hope, the hope that what is buried can rise again and in a new and more beautiful way. This is the hope of Spring, life returns after the death of Winter. And we too will return, but only when Christ, the King of Spring, returns. Until then, go visit a burial garden, and remember that the seeds may have died, but new life is coming.

About the author

Dr. David Russell Mosley is a poet and theologian living and teaching in the Inland Northwest. His debut book of poetry, “The Green Man,” is forthcoming from Resource Publications. In his spare time, Dr. Mosley likes wandering around in the woods, spending time in community and smoking a pipe.

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