1082) Cemeteries

All things are growing older:  The world is growing older; we ourselves are growing older.  A few more summers, a few more winters, a few more sicknesses, a few more sorrows, a few more weddings, and a few more partings, and then– what?  Why, the grass will be growing over our graves!

–J. C. Ryle (1816-1900) Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, in his 1877 book Holiness.

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Singsaas Lutheran Church, Brookings County, South Dakota

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From The Word for Every Day, page 178, by Al Rogness, 1981:

     Whenever I preach in Singsaas, my grandparents’ church on the Minnesota-South Dakota border, my eye wanders through the window to see the gravestones nestled around the church with its white spire pointed heavenward.  Sleeping there are five of my great-grandparents, my four grandparents, many uncles and aunts and cousins.  In another prairie cemetery a few miles away my parents and our son rest side by side.

     There have been many changes since 1870 when the immigrants established their church.  My grandparents’ homesteads are in the hands of other farmers, and the grandchildren are scattered.  The only piece of this earth that the family now occupies is the graveyard.  I find nothing melancholy about having them there.  Here the rich past and the promise of a glorious resurrection come together.

     When my cousin’s 17 year-old son was killed, his parents, remembering a chance remark he had once made about resting in the Pacific, arranged a service at sea and had his ashes dropped into the great waters.  I remembered that Mahatma Gandhi had asked that his ashes be given to the life-giving Ganges River of his land, and that Jawaharlal Nehru had ordered his to be taken into an airplane and scattered across his beloved India.  I find nothing distasteful, but even something beautiful, about such expansive resting places.

     But I’m glad I can wander around the graveyards of my family.  My grandchildren love to go from marker to marker, listen to the recollections and legends I have to tell about their forebears, and be carried back to the roots of their histories.  And while I don’t then preach a sermon on the resurrection, I know their young minds move from these dead to the celebrated company that awaits them.

     Rarely now are people allowed to know death at first hand.  No longer does a family live with the labored breathing of death in the next bedroom; no longer do the dead lie in state in the living room; rarely does a whole community assemble for the funeral.  So death, such an integral part of life, is smuggled out and hidden from view.

     At Singsaas, the cemetery’s sober reminder that death is real is matched by the pulpit’s clear and powerful word of a resurrection.

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 Luke 24:5b-6a  —  (The angels at the empty tomb of Jesus said), “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!”

John 3:16  —   For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

I Thessalonians 4:13-14  —  Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.  For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

I Corinthians 6:14  —  By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.

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PSALM 90 (selected verses):

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
    or you brought forth the whole world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn people back to dust,
    saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
    are like a day that has just gone by,
    or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
    they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
    but by evening it is dry and withered…

All our days pass away under your wrath;
    we finish our years with a moan.
Our days may come to seventy years,
    or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
    for they quickly pass, and we fly away…
Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

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