There is Life in Death: Prayers in a Cemetery

“Why do they put fences around cemeteries?” a 91-year-old priest asked my children with a twinkle in his eyes. Knowing his penchant for cracking jokes, the children waited for the punch line.

“Because everybody’s dying to get in!” he laughed, and the children giggled along with him.

This saintly priest—a dear family friend—makes no secret that he himself is (at least somewhat) close to “finishing the race,” as St. Paul says. He takes death seriously, of course, when it actually happens; but he lives in the joy of the Risen Christ, and he knows that death is not an end, but a new beginning.

I must remember this hope in November, when death is on my mind. It’s on my mind because November is the month when the Church remembers the dearly departed and asks the faithful to pray for their souls in a special way. It’s also on my mind because my life separated in two during the first week of a long-ago November. That was when I left behind the first part of my life—the life where I had a living father on earth—and began the second part—the life without my dad.

It’s been 19 years since my dad died, and you would think that would be enough time to get over it. But, as anyone knows who has lost a loved one, you don’t get over it. You live a different life without that person, and that life becomes the new normal—but you never stop missing the person. In some ways, time makes the separation harder, because every year is one year farther away from the time when you last saw your loved one. And every year is one more year that dims and fades the memories you wanted to press so firmly into the pages of your heart.

The fall my dad died, I was freshly out of college and had moved all the way across the country, from the east coast to California. When my dad dropped me off at the airport that August, he had to step away from the gate. I saw him shielding his eyes, and I knew that my father, whom I had never seen shed a tear, was crying. I didn’t know that it was the last time I would ever see him on this earth. But maybe he sensed, somehow, that it was the last time he would ever see me.

Three months later, while I went to work as a classroom teacher and spent a warm, sunny California day with my fourth-grade students, my father went in the November cold to his office in Washington, D.C., had a massive heart attack, and died. He had just turned 59.

It’s been 19 years, but when the phone rings, I still flinch in fear that the person on the other end will tell me that someone I love died suddenly.  It’s been 19 years, but when I put on John Michael Talbot, I feel like I’m a child again and my dad is listening to his music in the living room. It’s been 19 years, but I still can’t help wishing my children had the chance to know their grandfather.

This is the nature of death: It is not an end. If it were an end, these loose ends would have been tied up and finished. But my father’s life goes on in his absence. And I can’t help but believe that this endless mourning is a sign that God has given us to remind us of a promise that life does not have to end in death. There is life in death.

I feel this promise in the air when I visit one of the loveliest places in our city, where I often go to think and pray in peace: a cemetery. Built in the 1800’s, this cemetery is full of life. This is a strange way to describe a cemetery, I know; yet it’s true. It is full of visitors who quietly stroll its winding paths, of workers who mow and trim its grass, of deer silently watching from the woods.

It is also full of headstones bearing the names of people who lived. People who once walked winding roads, breathed deep breaths of crisp fall air, got married and had babies and went to war and hosted Sunday family dinners and lost loved ones. Some of the headstones honor lives that ended at 85; some at 30; some at 2. Whether they lived one day or twenty thousand days, they all lived this life—and so even the plots of the cemetery are full of life.

Each headstone marks a life, and it marks a death. But since death is not an end, each headstone heralds a beginning, too. Just as my life split in two when my father died, his life split in two, also. His earthly life had ended, but the life of his soul in the hope of eternity stretched out before him.

On this side of the cemetery—the earthly side—I see visible paths twisting, leading people around the grounds. On the other side of the cemetery—the heavenly side—each headstone marks a new path, a hidden path. We cannot see it with our eyes, but each person who lived has taken that path. Where does it lead?

We hope and pray that for every person, the path leads into the arms of the Risen Christ. And in the month of November, the Church, in the mercy of God, gives us a special gift to help souls reach the end of that salvific path. I never fully learned about this devotion in years past, but I hope to make up for it this year:  From November 1-8, Catholics in a state of grace who visit a cemetery and pray there for the dead can receive a plenary indulgence for the souls in Purgatory. (The conditions for the indulgence are: to pray for souls of the deceased, to receive Communion on each day you seek an indulgence, to go to Confession within 20 days, and to pray at least one Our Father and Hail Mary for the Pope.)

The other day, I visited the cemetery after reading Timothy Lusch’s helpful article about the Jesus Prayer. It occurred to me then that the Jesus Prayer can also be a way of praying for the souls in the cemetery. So I began: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on the souls in this cemetery. At times, I noticed the names on different graves and put those specific names into the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on (person’s or family’s name).

It felt like an inspiration from the Holy Spirit, and I was grateful to have received a new way (in addition to the Eternal Rest prayer and other beautiful traditions of the Church) to pray for the souls in Purgatory, especially for the souls of my loved ones and those buried in this cemetery. The Jesus Prayer is the perfect length to repeat over and over while walking the cemetery’s loops.

I wish I could say I always remember to pray for the souls in the cemetery, but I don’t. Too often, I get so caught up in the beauty that surrounds me there that I forget I should be praying for the dead. And I don’t always fulfill my calling to pray fervently for my deceased loved ones, either. At times, I have a tendency (as I have written about before) to expect and want so much for people to be in heaven that I forget how much I should be praying for them to get there. The Church’s liturgical year grants a beautiful reminder to me, in this first week of November, that our prayers for the souls who have died can assist them in finding eternal joy.

Praying for souls also reminds me that there is life in death. The name of that life is Jesus.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Maura Roan McKeegan


Maura Roan McKeegan is the author of a series of children's picture books about biblical typology, including: The End of the Fiery Sword: Adam & Eve and Jesus & Mary; Into the Sea, Out of the Tomb: Jonah and Jesus, and, most recently, Building the Way to Heaven: The Tower of Babel and Pentecost (Emmaus Road Publishing; available spring 2018). Her articles have appeared in publications such as Catholic Digest, The Civilized Reader, Franciscan Way, Guideposts, and Lay Witness.

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  • Giovanni Serafino

    Thank you for this beautiful reflection and reminder! As someone who lost his dear mother several years ago, I cried my way through this article. One of the sad consequences of funeral homilies in recent years in which priests solemnly and infallibly declares the deceased to be in heaven, is a lack prayers and Masses offered for the repose of the souls of the departed. In complete conformity to protestant teaching, Purgatory has almost completely disappeared from Catholic consciousness. While it is our hope that our beloved dead are in heaven, very few of us die in the perfection of sanctity. Hence, the wise teaching of purgatory and prayers for the faithful departed

  • Bob

    I never understood these “plenary indulgences”. It sounds to me like they are some sort of man-made deal, If you do this in this way, then you get that…When did Jesus ever speak of plenary indulgences?

  • Cindy

    “If you do this in this way, then you get that”

    hmmm, there are numerous exchanges in Scripture where God says exactly that. Is that not what salvation is after all? If you repent and believe in the way Jesus said, then you get to go to Heaven.

    IF you are truly interested in understanding/learning about indulgences (plenary and not), there are numerous good and first sources for free online. I repeat, IF you want to understand. If you don’t really want to understand, but only intend to mock, well, no point in even commenting on it.

  • Bob

    I did not mock. Maybe I just have a hard time agreeing with them. Speaking in generalities (eg. live a good and holy life to achieve heaven) is one thing. Having to say a specific prayer during a specific time period at a specific location, I believe is stretching the point.

  • pannw

    I’m always a little surprised when people say something in the Church is a ‘man-made’ deal, rule, law, etc. as if somehow that negates the thing. I am not mocking when I say, so what if it is ‘man-made’? These things are declared by the man to whom Jesus gave that authority when He said, “What you hold bound on earth…” or “Whose sins you forgive…”

    The Apostles taught that we are to pray for sinners. In Maccabees, it taught that we are to pray for the dead. Why would those things be taught if they accomplished nothing? Indulgences are a wonderful gift to us from God, through His Holy Church. Deo gratias.

  • Joe Channon

    We go to Mass on Sunday and say specific prayers, and we can go to Mass on any other day, and we can do good things for the poor at any time. So I think we have a great number of ways, some specific and some not so specific, to make ourselves ready to receive grace. As for paying for salvation with goodness, I don’t think that’s quite the thing – I think it’s more like God wants to help each of us change our natures and become worthy of Heaven.

  • enzo

    Bob, there are things that I’m discovering every day about the Catholic Church. It is a storehouse, an endless treasure, which leads every soul to heaven.
    There is also many resources out there to help you understand such things as the sacraments, salvation, and indulgences. I suggest that you look at the Catholic Catechism. There you will find many answers to your questions.
    By the way, I don’t think you were being unreasonable at all concerning your first post on indulgences. God will meet you right where you are at, but don’t stop learning about the Catholic Faith. It is a beautiful thing and it was designed to get you, me, and the rest of humanity into heaven.

    Peace, my friend

  • Denise McKeegan

    Maura, a beautiful article that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

  • Adrian Johnson

    We live in our father’s house and all he has is ours. However if a child wants “something special” he must ask his father, and it is not unreasonable for the father to ask some little condition so that the child will appreciate it. That’s the way I think of the “conditions” of indulgences. They are a way this sinner can access the super-abundant merits of Christ, Mary, and the saints to cover the penalties of my many faults !

  • Daniel H Benson

    I’ve lost my twin brother at the age of 20 in a horrific traffic accident and I’ve lost both of my parents in their due time. My brother did not die “In Christ” but my parents did. As it says in Hebrews, Death brings judgement. Mark 12:27 says God is not the God of the dead but the living. All who die will be resurrected, some to eternal life for eternal (reward) others to eternal damnation or eternal (judgement); John 5:28-29. Our hope for eternal reward and not eternal Judgement is found in putting our hope, in something we as fallen souls could not do for ourselves, redeem our sins. Christ did that by paying for our sins (Redeemed) at one time, in His suffering, death on the cross and resurrection from the grave. In Hebrews 9 it says;
    And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. Who are those who are waiting for Him? Those who put their trust in the finished work of Christ on the cross for the salvation of our souls. And why does he not deal with sin for those who trust in Him? It’s by our Faith in what Jesus did for us on the cross. In return he hides our broken righteousness(sin), and covers us in His Perfect Righteousness (our reward).
    As it says in 2 Cor. 5:21;
    For our sake(believers) He (God the Father) made him (God the Son-Jesus) to be sin (for us on the cross) who knew no sin, so that in him (Jesus) we might become (receive) the righteousness of God. Thus salvation, the Gospel is so simple even a child can understand it. Just read the book of Romans! We can’t save ourselves by anything but faith in the finished work of Christ on the Cross. Galatians 2:16 says;
    knowing that a man is not
    justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we
    have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in
    Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no
    flesh shall be justified.
    Knowing God is sovereign over all things, past present and future, I can in one case sadness and in the other joy place my loved ones in total peace, on His alter of Grace and righteousness. My brother’s loss is a lesson to find Christ while we can because death brings judgement, but those who die in Christ. 1 Thess. 4:16-17, along with the living in Christ (who have not died yet) have a hope (In Christ) of meeting God.
    The Gospel is simple, I must realize I’m a sinner and deserve eternal Judgement. My only Hope is knowing Jesus is the only name under heaven in witch anyone can be saved. I by faith, repent of my sins and embrace the finished work of Christ on the Cross. I commit to follow Him and God gives us His Holy Spirit that empowers us to bear fruit of repentance. Our works don’t save us, they are the fruit of the HS and that we are already saved. If we have to work for our salvation it’s an obligation. If our works are a free gift as was Christ’s to us, our works are acts of grace in our lives. Put your faith in Christ alone and encourage others to do the same, because death brings judgement it is final.

  • Doc

    Very nice article. At our cemetery in Belcourt, ND we have many solar lights and it is very impressive to see at night. The solar light “craze” began after a 2nd grader died of cancer. His name was Michael and he attended little St. Ann’s Indian School. Grandpa placed 1 solar light on little Michael’s grave and 10 years later the whole cemetery is filled with lights. The lights, to me, represent souls in heaven and especially little Michael soul. Many local people visit our cemetery and pray silently for relatives. Also each summer we have a Holy Mass at the cemetery. For me it is one of my most special Masses of the year because I set up my lawn chair next to my Mom’s grave site and attend the Mass with my wife and kids. JMJ

  • Albee

    Very beautiful article. I lost my father 20 yrs. ago, in October. I had the honor to be
    able to take care of him during his final days, as he died of cancer. Much of what you said here mirrors my own thoughts, feelings and experiences. I’m sure many tears were shed as you wrote this.
    I’ve always liked cemeteries, even as a child. There is a peace there as well as comfort. Those people buried there need our prayers. It is good to remember them. Somehow, they are our friends, comrades…because each of us will face death someday as they did, and we will end up like them. By praying for them now, especially the
    St. Gertrude Prayer, perhaps someday when it is my turn, someone will pray for my soul and help me get out of Purgatory…if I make it that far. We all need prayers now and forever.

    Our Lord dictated the following prayer to St. Gertrude the Great to release 1,000 Souls from Purgatory each time it is said.

    “Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus,
    in union with the masses said throughout the world today, for all the
    holy souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the
    universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.”

    St. Gertrude’s life was the mystic life of the Cloister – a Benedictine
    nun. She meditated on the Passion of Christ, which many times brought a
    flood of tears to her eyes. She did many penances and Our Lord appeared
    to her many times. She had a tender love for the Blessed Virgin and was
    very devoted to the suffering souls in Purgatory. She died in 1334. Her
    feast day is November 16th.

    Approval and recommendation , M. Cardinal Pahiarca at Lisbon, Portugal, on March 4, 1936.

  • LMS

    Thank you for so much writing and sharing this. We visit the cemetery where several family members are buried every Christmas, since it’s purported that more souls are released from Purgatory on Christmas Day than any other day of the year. We pray the St. Gertrude prayer and many other prayers for the holy souls, light luminaries, sing Christmas carols and pour holy water on the graves of departed loved ones. Last Christmas our family, including seven grandchildren, not only visited the graves of numerous family members, but also found ourselves going out to the graves of several priests, nuns, complete strangers, and multiple unmarked numbered graves of unnamed prisoners, where we prayed the St. Gertrude prayer, sang and touched each grave with drops of holy water until we drained our large vessel dry. The grace and mercy we experienced was truly palpable and left us filled with such immense peace and joy that I am transported back to that day every time it’s called to memory! Dear souls reading this article today, we are so blessed to be able to assist those who have gone before us on the path to Heaven and one of the greatest gifts we can ever offer for Christmas is to visit and pray for our beloved dead.