“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.