Exult all you who lie in the dust,
For your dew is a radiant dew
And the land of ghosts will give birth.
When full of the trials of life, it is a sobering thing to walk through a cemetery. It is best to do so when it is quiet, on a weekday, and, at this time of year, at twilight if possible. The experience will offer an antidote to much that ails us.
Just the other day, I passed through one of London’s many Victorian cemeteries. It provides, as it happens, a convenient route from one major London artery to another. Between busy streets that have ‘business’ to do and with ‘important’ people moving up and down them, there lies a place where all such activity has long since ceased. The path through the cemetery offers a convenient cut-through, if a chastening one.
The older the cemetery, the greater the sense of history: cemeteries testify both to time passing and to its inexorable progress. It is impossible when in such a place not to pause, if but for a moment. And, after pausing, it is equally impossible not to look upon the inscriptions: the names, the dates, brief snatches carved in stone of the lives of people who were once a beloved husband, a much-missed daughter, an infant dead soon after birth. Most inscriptions record little more than the date upon entering this world and the date of passing from it; even these dates now are often obscured by lichen or worn away by wind and rain.
There are the graves of the wealthy evidenced by the prominence of the tombs that now hold dust. A closer examination of such edifices reveals many are in a state of disrepair – decayed, neglected, crumbling into a dust soon be carried away by the wind. The wealth that bought these tombs has not sustained them. All withers and fades here. The great and the good of yesterday are no more remembered today than the infants whose gravestones record but a few days of life. We are born naked and leave so. We are buried in ranks beside our fellow dead who were drawn from different stations in life: few, if any who lie beside us, will we have known in this earthly sojourn. Nevertheless, here at last there is the universal brotherhood of the dead, with its definitive sense of connectedness, one that so often eluded us when the summer sun warmed our faces.
In such places, there is a noticeable tranquility. We experience a sense of ending, a resting, a finality – for those lying in this place there is nowhere further to go, nothing further to do; the bodies of the departed await what is to come. Perhaps this is why some find graveyards disturbing for cemeteries mock wealth and rank, earthly hopes, too, and dreams of connectivity and digital footprints. The faces of the stone angels look towards the visitor forlorn in disbelief, noting, it seems, the baubles with which we, the living and mortal, preoccupy ourselves, whilst the only ‘currency’ with which we can ‘buy’ eternity is slowly frittered away. Walking past the graves, it is true that one senses time in a way that is often lost in the rest of London. For that reason alone, to such silent quarters, I resolved to return again, and, perhaps, more frequently.
Does this sound mawkish? Macabre even? Maybe you would rather be brought to some quarter of this city where you will find noise, lights and a ‘good time’? Believe me: you will rarely find peace there. And, in those you find present in such places, if you look closely, upon their faces you will see a strange fear, perhaps, more accurately, a dread that belies the revelry. It is not only in the cemeteries of London where one discovers ‘the dead’, nor are the ‘living’ limited by such places. Escapism rarely constitutes an escape for time is marching on – to its inevitable conclusion.
As I wandered through this urban Valley of Bones, I was reminded that it remains a ‘good and honourable’ thing to pray for the dead. Especially so during this month, when the prayers for the Faithful Departed remind us that we are still linked with the Holy Souls and that we are all still in need of one another’s prayers.
This November, you could do worse than take a ‘short cut’ through a graveyard. You will not be alone. As winter draws in, all of nature reminds us that life is given only for a season and that, just as with the fallen leaves all around, our end too draws ever closer.
Nevertheless, for Catholics, this is not the end of the story; we believe in a God that escaped the tomb, rose from it, transcended death, and, is proclaimed the Author of Life. Looking across the many graves in a cemetery, one can seem to catch a glimpse, if only for a moment, of what it will be like on that much anticipated Great Day. Then those who lie in dust, whether encased in a grand tomb or in a humble unmarked grave, shall hear the same Trumpet blast and its summons to gather.
Passing through the cemetery gates, I returned once more to the electric bright bustle of city streets. As I did so, I turned back to gaze for a last time upon the graves and the tombs, the angels and crosses, all now silhouetted against the darkening evening sky.
It was then I grasped that here was no sad relic of former glory, no sad tribute to what once was, but rather a monument to the eternal future, to the glory yet to come; and I realised, too, that, in contrast around us we have here no abiding city. These cemeteries, sombre but tranquil resting places, point to that fact. They point, to something else besides, something more wondrous still, speaking, as they do, of a greater beauty than anything this earth can offer.
It was with these thoughts that I walked on, my heart lighter than when I had entered that dormitory of the dead; my troubles temporarily quelled; my spirit at rest; and my soul once more that of a child awaiting a promise.