Chasing Death from the Graveyard
Chasing Death from the Graveyard
During this Easter season, I want to tell you a Halloween story. In some cities, the town grows up around a courthouse square, university quad, or a river. In my hometown of Paragould, Arkansas, the town surrounds and extends from a massive graveyard, Linwood Cemetery. Growing up this didn’t occur to me as odd, but now when I go home, I’m momentarily startled to drive into the heart of town and see this huge bone garden that covers so much real estate.
For several years when I was in elementary school, my brother Robert, Omer Shedd, and I hosted a huge Halloween party. Some woods separated our house from Omer’s, and we’d spend days raking trails through the woods in preparation for all sorts of scary party games on Halloween night. But one year it occurred to us that in no way could the forest ever be as scary on All Hallows Eve as Linwood Cemetery. We begged our moms to take us all into the graveyard to tell ghost stories on Halloween night after dark.
That year I dressed as a Crusader knight. (Even then I was a church nerd.) I had a purple tunic, wool leggings of my Mom’s that I thought resembled chainmail (this was 1980, after all), and a wooden sword I’d spray painted silver.
On Halloween night, my mother and a couple of other moms led a menagerie of costumed kids down the road and into the cemetery. There were probably thirty of us. The moms wanted to stop at the gate, but we insisted on walking deep into the graveyard, stopping only when we reached the mammoth mausoleum in its center. We stopped, sat down, and began telling ghost stories.
Now, unbeknownst to us some kid’s high school-aged older brother had heard about our plans. And for days he’d apparently been making plans of his own. He set up a cassette player behind the mausoleum and began playing a tape of shrieks and screams. We froze. Then he jumped out from the bushes wearing green coveralls, a Jason Voorhees hockey mask from “Friday the 13th” (which had just come out in theaters a few months before), and brandishing a chainsaw (without the chain). I remember my mother screaming, which is what the high school hooligan hoped for and expected. I’m pretty sure he didn’t expect what happened next.
Fortified with fruit punch and Halloween cookies, the kid next to me jumped to his feet and yelled, “Get him!” I realized I was carrying a sword, and I added, “Charge!” With that, thirty elementary school kids ran headlong for Jason in the hockey mask, waving our pitchforks, witches’ brooms, and cap guns as we went. For just a second Jason stood dumbstruck in disbelief — as though someone had risen from the grave — dropping the chainsaw to his side. Then he took off, running away from us as fast as he could through the cemetery. We never did find out whose big brother he was. Apparently, kids in high school don’t brag about it when a gang of third-graders terrifies them on Halloween. Plus, we went home with very nice cassette recorder. We felt as if we’d chased death itself from the cemetery.
Usually, we know what to expect when we visit the cemetery. We go there to visit those who’ve gone, to remember what is past and pine for what will never be. Loss smoothed by time pierces again as we walk among the tombs.
Frederick Niedner adds that “unfinished business [also] lingers in every graveyard — broken promises, betrayals, countless secrets left to perish with the departed. Sometimes visitors speak to the dead. They apologize, even plead for absolution, but none comes. Silence stands guard. The stone will never be rolled away.”
Whether the graveyard stands literally in the center of town or figuratively in the center of our souls, it symbolizes the wrongs we cannot right, broken vows we cannot mend, the hopes crushed under the weight of the world and buried under heavy stone.
But on Easter, God will not allow the stone to hold the dead. When grief for an only son touches the heart of God, the universe is shaken. The stone is rolled away, and the grave is empty. The Son of God lives. God chases death from the graveyard.
If we will embrace Easter in this season, then even visits to actual cemeteries will become very different affairs. We’ll visit the graves of those who’ve gone clothed in our new lives. We’ll share with them now in hope and love, rather than wistfulness and regret, what God is doing within us, transforming us into new creatures. And then, perhaps, we’ll even be able to resurrect our broken relationships with the living, sharing with them how what was dead in us is gone and what remains lives with hope anew.
Grace and peace,
The Very Reverend Barkley Thompson,
Every Member Canvass
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