And if life is a miraculous opening, why cannot death be a miraculous opening also?

Brian Doyle

1

In Acts 7:16, readers are told that the bodies of Jacob and his twelve sons were brought back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. I think that family connection to their ancestor Abraham is more valuable than the purchase price.

My first call to ministry was to a church that maintained a cemetery—technically, a “graveyard” because it is located on the church grounds just outside the sanctuary. Some of those laid to rest there had been born in the eighteenth century. I spent many mornings walking the gently sloped path between the graves, first following my dog, then leading my young sons. The elder learned his letters by tracing his pointer finger along the engraved names. Watching him, I was struck by the poignancy that generations of family members were buried right next to one another.

My paternal grandparents are buried in God’s Acre, the Moravian cemetery in Old Salem, North Carolina. “God’s Acre” (Hutberg in German) dates to the first Moravian community in Herrnhut in the mid-eighteenth century. In Old Salem, the graves cover an expanse much greater than an actual acre. The name comes from the belief that the dead are buried like seeds until the resurrection.

God’s Acre in Old Salem maintains another German tradition. Each gravestone is the exact same size, shape, and color—a small rectangle carved out of white marble. I visit God’s Acre with my parents and my children. The neatly ordered rows witness that, for all our differences, we share a common fate.

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A graveyard is not the only place to mark the dead. While driving through the rural areas around the first church I served as pastor, I would encounter small white crosses planted along the shoulders of roads. Like gravestones, theses crosses were markers, but not for a literal body; instead, they marked the place where someone ceased to be in this life. Like the Moravian gravestones, the size, shape, and color were the same. But even zipping past at 55 mph, I saw the offerings that had been left by mourners—ribbons, Bible verses, photographs, statues of angels, stuffed animals, and commencement caps.

Once, construction delayed traffic on a two-lane road. I happened to pull to a stop right beside one of these crosses. The year “2006” had been written the center beam, yet there was a bouquet of fresh flowers lying in the grass. Who had just visited this marker so many years after the accident? A parent, a sibling, a child? A lover and/or best friend?

Though we shall all die, each one of us is unique, precious, holy. At death, our bodies or ashes are planted like seeds in the ground. Until the resurrection, we continue to live in the memories of loved ones.

2

As Acts 7 recounts, Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt only to rise to the height of power in that empire. When a famine forced his desperate brothers to return to him, Joseph famously told them, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20).

I think Joseph’s experience is the interpretative key to the Apostle Paul’s oft-quoted verse that all things work together for good for those who love God (Rom 8:28). Especially when quoted at funerals, I believe that the NIV’s translation is helpful: And we know that in all things God works for the good…

It’s not true that “all things” are good. Joseph was not the last person to be betrayed. Certainly, evil exists. There are more slaves in the twenty-first century than ever before in history. And tragedies occur every single day. Teenagers flip cars. Brakes fail. Drunk drivers swerve across yellow lines. Many gravestones are engraved with a cross. Whether chiseled in stone, hung in a sanctuary, or planted along a highway, the cross points to the grave reality of death…and beyond it.

As an adjective, “grave” is a weighty, serious proposition. It can even mean “dreadful” as in “grave danger.” Yet the belief that God works in all things is a song of hope: All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Such a grave song may be “a cold and broken hallelujah” à la Leonard Cohen. Still, it is a grave hope that the dead are buried like seeds only to rise again.

Until the resurrection—“that great gettin’ up morning”—we mark the dead with gravestones and crosses, with flags and flowers and more. We make pilgrimages to these sites with our children and our children’s children. We brush away the dirt and leave flowers. We offer prayers and tell stories about the deceased, stories which are our best prayers. Sometimes we sense the presence of the dead like a momentary pause in a conversation, a silence in which you somehow know exactly what the other person is about to say.

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My grandfather died of a brain tumor when I was a child. To me, he was here one moment, gone the next. Years later, Gran took my younger brother and me to visit his grave.

It was a typical humid evening in North Carolina and the masses of mosquitos seemed to whine at the volume of a weedwhacker. I was now a churlish teenager, annoyed by what seemed like a waste of time on the way to dinner. I was always hungry, literally and figuratively. I did not have time for the dead.

My brother noticed that Gran’s lips were silently moving. He wondered why. She answered, “I’m talking to your granddad.”

For once, I didn’t roll my eyes.

My brother whispered, “Do you think he can, you know, hear you?!?!

Gran allowed his question to hang in the air. Then she smiled at us, “I hope so, my dears. I hope.”

Now that Gran has died, her words have sprouted as flowers in my mind. And I tell her so, while standing there at her grave.