The other Friday Caroline and I had been invited to attend a Ruby Wedding party which took place in a Welsh rugby club in a remote valley north of Swansea. That in itself was an experience, but that is not the point of this blog. On the way we stopped off at Porthcawl, a delightful Welsh sea-side town, where Caroline had been born, and where her parents are buried. During our short visit we went to the graveyard. Equipped with secateurs and a trowel, we were able to tidy the grave, and on the grave we placed some flowers.
Now I confess that this was an unusual experience for me. I have, for instance, never returned to my father’s grave, even although I am never far from it when I visit my mother on my regular trips to Hove. As a family we never visited the graves of loved ones. This was not part of our family tradition. Caroline, however, was brought up differently. Her parents did, from time to time, visit the graves of loved ones, leaving flowers whenever they visited.
This set me thinking. On the one hand, as Christians we know that the remains of our loved ones are just that – remains. The bones or the ashes are remnants of the old body. In a way which defies understanding, we know that our loved ones who have died believing in Christ are already “with the Lord” (see 2 Cor 5.6-8). And yet, their remains are to be honoured. Just as in a funeral service we expect funeral directors and their staff to treat the body with respect, so we expect there to be respect in our cemeteries and graveyards. Indeed, in the Christian tradition we speak of ‘hallowed’ ground. When vandals desecrate the resting-place of our loved ones, we rightly feel upset. Our concern is not lest the literal ‘dust’ or ‘ashes’ are being affected – it is rather the memories of our loved ones which are suffering dishonour.
On reflection , there is something to be said for putting flowers on the final resting-place of a loved one. We are honouring our loved one, and in so doing we are thanking God for all the good and positive memories we have of them. Yes, we come not to pray for them, for their lives are secure in God, but rather to thank God for them.
In searching for prayers that might be appropriate for such an occasion, I came across the following prayer of Ed Hays, an American Catholic, in Prayers for the Domestic Church:
God of Abraham and of Moses, Lord of the Living,
Who visited Jesus within His grave and filled Him with the fullness of eternal life,
Hear our prayer this day as we come to the burial place of (name).
With reverence, we visit this sacred shrine where his/her body was placed
Within the womb of the earth to await the final day of glory.
We pause in silence to be united with him/her.
Lord, we have come on this pilgrimage of prayer to keep the flame of love alive within our hearts. As we read his/her name upon the marker-stone, we rejoice because that name has been written for all ages in the palm of your divine hand.
May the breath of creation that surrounds this grave –
In trees, grass and earth, birds and sun – join us in prayer.
May this pilgrimage remind us of what we already know:
That nothing dies; rather, life is only transformed into new life.
Holy is this grave, holy this earth that has held in gentle embrace the bodies of all who are buried in this cemetery.
Lord, with reverence, we leave a wreath of worship at this grave,
Woven with love, adorned with memories,
And with our faith in the reality of that earthen Easter morning
When all the holy dead shall rise in the splendour of your glory.
Till that day, eternal rest to (name) and to all the holy dead. Amen
Alternatively, there is a lovely prayer by the Anglican Dick Williams found in Prayers for Today’s Church, written not specifically for a cemetery, but rather for all those who mourn:
We remember, Lord, the slenderness of the thread which separates life from death, and the suddenness with which it can be broken. Help us also to remember that on both sides of that division we are surrounded by your love. Persuade our hearts that when our dear ones die neither we nor they are parted from you. In you may we find our peace and in you be united with them in the glorious body of Christ, who has burst the bonds of death and is alive for evermore, our Saviour and theirs for ever and ever.