In Praise of Graveyards

I live across the street from a graveyard. I realize that would not appeal to some people. But having lived across from Woodlawn Cemetery in Pepperell, Massachusetts, for four years, I have to admit that I am a fan. There are of course the obvious benefits (quiet neighbors, no plans to build a convenience store across from my house, plenty of green space). But there are some other less obvious ones. I’ll share four such advantages.

1. Our graveyard is bursting with life.

For a place that’s supposed to be inhabited mainly by dead people, our graveyard is surprisingly full of the living. People regularly walk their dogs or do laps for exercise. Relatives and friends come to tend the graves, plant flowers, pull weeds, and tidy up. While they work, they play music on their car radios with the doors open. Neighbors greet each other. Kids learn to ride bikes. The groundskeeper rides his big mower.

In short, it’s a social spot. We’ve taken our place in this little membership, enjoying good conversations, exchanging pleasantries, meeting people for the first time or deepening friendships. Living right across the street as we do, we see folks coming and going and say hello to people we’d never otherwise see. Perhaps God will be pleased one day to bring new life through these conversations in a place associated with death.

2. Our graveyard teaches our children about life and death.

We regularly take walks in the graveyard with our two little children. We read out loud the names on the gravestones and point out the years of birth and death. Sometimes when our kids are in the house and wanting fresh air, they ask to visit Levi, the long-dead inhabitant of one of the particularly impressive monuments. They’re learning to act respectfully in the graveyard—no pulling flowers or hopping up and down on grave markers.

More importantly, they’re learning from early on about the reality of death. You can’t live across from a graveyard and not have some conversations with your 4-year-old about why all these stone slabs are stuck here in the ground. Death is a reality he’s beginning to comprehend. And we’re also teaching him about the reality of resurrection life after death.

3. Our graveyard reminds me of my own mortality.

By now, some of the gravestones are familiar. Here’s the woman I buried a few years back in a small graveside service with family and friends. Here’s the young son of a family in my church. Here’s the mother of my neighbor. And here’s the much-beloved Pepperell fireman for whom the bagpipes played. Our neighbors two doors down walk in the graveyard almost every morning. They walk right past their own gravestone, upon which has already been carved their names and birthdates. Only the date after the dash remains to be etched when they make the short trip across the road for the last time.

These connections between the living and dead remind me of my mortality and of the brevity and fragility of life. I’m reminded in the graveyard that death takes 100 percent of us. I will wake one morning, and that day will be my last day in this life. Jonathan Edwards resolved to “think much on all occasions” of his own death. Living within view of a graveyard helps me do that, and I consider this a great gift (Ecclesiastes 7.2).

4. Our graveyard reminds me of Jesus’ sovereignty.

The graveyard is my favorite place to wander and pray. It orients me toward the great last day and the future realities I forget all too easily. I’ll sit there looking out over the gravestones and recall Jesus’ words in John 5: “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [my] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”

Each of the hundreds of people buried in Woodlawn was laid in the ground with great care in a grave dug with great effort (at least before backhoes began doing the work). They were buried over the course of many years. But every one of them will come out of the ground together, at once, in response to Jesus’ voice. What a powerful voice! When they rise, Jesus will decide their final destiny—eternal life or eternal judgment. What sovereign authority!

The future life of these buried will be (and already is) unspeakably glorious or unspeakably horrible. This knowledge impresses upon me the urgent importance of speaking gospel words while time remains for repentance and faith. I have wept and pled with God for my living neighbors among my dead ones.

Living across from a graveyard isn’t for everyone, but I’m thankful to God for it. It points me again and again to the life-giving Lord.

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  • Chipper

    Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for writing this article. You make four encouraging points, and I’m glad you like living across from a graveyard.

    I’m not so sure, though, that this kind of article is best for a public forum. Having just lost my dad to a tragic accident (he was hit by a driver who was under the influence of drugs), and having just watched my dad’s casket enter a graveyard, I have very few positive things to say about graveyards at this point. My dad loved Jesus very much, and my dad is rejoicing in God’s presence at this very moment. I can’t wait to see my dad again! But even with this hope, it’s kind of rough seeing someone write an article called “In Praise of Graveyards.” Perhaps you’ve experienced this kind of tragedy and know how I feel.

    I understand why TGC would post this kind of article on Halloween, but I don’t think it’s an especially sensitive article to post in public given that so many people are inevitably grieving tragic losses on any given day. Graveyards are not positive places for many of those people.

  • Randy Black

    …and you will have a ringside seat when “the dead in Christ will rise first.” 1 Thess 4:16

  • John Hotchkiss

    Though living in Massachusetts, I have twice stayed in Princeton, New Jersey, for conferences, and, both times, I walked the graveyard there, visiting the grave sites of Warfield, Hodge(s), Alexander, and others. I particularly appreciated spending time with Jonathan Edwards, as it were, reflecting on some of his writings. There is nothing like it for gaining an appreciation for those who have died in the faith and yet still speak to us. Even many of my Christian friends consider me nuts. So be it.

  • http://cemeteryreflections Bill Kinderman

    We are all going to the cemetery, no matter what. I think it is a good thing, biblically speaking, to reflect on our own mortality, our brief lives, and the urgent necessity of keeping our eyes on eternity while we live them. If going to a cemetery helps someone reflect on oft ignored realities, then that is a good thing. Ps. 90:12, (NIV) says “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Also see Psal, 39:4-5 – everyone’s life is “but a breath.”. We could also allow a cemetery to fill us with fear about dying. The place is the same either way – it is what we choose to think about when considering it that can be helpful – or discouraging. I, for one, use visits to cemeteries to mentally connect with what I imagine the lives of people there (in history) would have been like, for the purposes of both encouragement and warning. I also think about where those people are now, and wonder how many of them would give anything to be able to live their lives over and make different choices and live by different priorities. I visited a cemetery in rural Georgia one time that had people in it from the Revolutionary War era through the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War. I saw one family – Owen and Bedelia McDermott – who buried 11 or 12 kids there, and imagined Bedelia going to that same spot for the first child’s burial in 1827 or 1829 and then for all of the others in her family until she herself was finally laid to rest there in 1872. I imagined how she felt going there over and over again to bury her many children and eventually her husband, and while there I was moved and earnestly resolved to love my wife and children more now and to be more diligent in the service of my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Since my time here on earth is really just an eyeblink long, considered from an eternal standpoint, devoting it to sinning is a very very foolish thing for me to choose to do. Cemetery visits put me in touch with important truths that directly pertain to eternal things, depsite the fact that such places are filled with irrefutable evidence of death and decay (both of which are consequences of sin). One day, though, for all who trust Christ, we will be with Him where “there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4, (NIV). For those who don’t know Jesus, the cemetery should serve as an urgent reminder to repent and come to Him now for salvation, while there is still time – since there really is not much time left for any of us here on earth. If your life was ended today where would you spend eternity? For those who do know Jesus, I would hope they see cemeteries as a reminder to keep their focus on God and live aright before Him, by faith, since in doing so they are preparing now to go very soon to live with Him forever. Sorry to run on so long. May God bless all who read this.