Cemeteries are unique places. They’re somber and normally quiet acres quarantined from the bustle of the city. For many, these are awkwardly uncomfortable places. Others are drawn to make regular pilgrimages. And for those who do visit cemeteries, it raises the question over what we’re seeking to accomplish in a grave visit. The question is from Dave.
“Dear Pastor John, thank you for this podcast,” he writes. “I appreciate your thoughtful answers to hard questions. I’m wondering what Christians should do and feel and think at a cemetery. I see some Christians decorating their loved ones’ graves with flowers. Some visit often, even weekly. Some remember fondly; some weep every time they visit over a period of many years. Is there bad theology behind some of these practices? At what point do we become overly maudlin? When does it become ancestor worship? When does it become a wasting of time? The Bible observes extended periods of mourning at death. Also, some graves were clearly marked and remembered for generations. And Solomon said that ‘it is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting’ (Ecclesiastes 7:2). What should Christians accomplish and take away from cemetery visits?”
There are moments in life that signify, in an unusual way, a division between the past and the future: graduation from high school or college, marriage, a new job. That season is over; a new season is beginning.
But it seems to me that apart from our own conversion, probably the event that divides our past and future most decisively is the death of someone we love. That season is over in a way that is more absolute than all the other season endings. And you might say that a cemetery or a memorial stone or a brass marker with a precious name on it is like a large, unavoidable signpost pointing in two directions: your past life with your loved one, and your future life without your loved one.
So, what is a biblical disposition or a biblical attitude as you stand there beside that glaring signpost dividing your life? Or the way Dave asked the question, Are there unbiblical, unhealthy things that you could do at this signpost, this gravestone, and are there biblical and healthy things that you could do in a cemetery? Let me start with mentioning a few unbiblical, unhealthy things you could feel and do in the cemetery, and then end with some biblical, healthy suggestions.
What would make our visit to the graveside of a loved one unbiblical and unhealthy would be a kind of ongoing need for the deceased person that is not being met by faith in Jesus and is being expressed in unhealthy and Christ-dishonoring ways.
“Few things blow the fog of worldliness away like the loss of a loved one.”
Now, the Bible does clearly say that there is a sense in which members of the body of Christ, and that would include Christian family members, need each other. That’s no dishonor to Christ when we realize that other people are gifts from Christ and are intended to represent Christ to us. In 1 Corinthians 12:21, Paul says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” Yes, you do; it’s not right for you to say you don’t need other people that God has designed and put in your life.
But when God, in his providence — which is always wise and just and good and, toward his people, always loving — takes away a member of the body of Christ, a member of the family, God is saying, “You don’t need this person anymore — not in the way you did before. I will be your supply. I will meet every need of yours in Christ Jesus.” So, if our visit to the cemetery is an ongoing expression of “I need you; I can’t live without you,” that’s an expression of distrust in the promises of Christ.
Some examples of what that distrust might look like would be, for example, coming to the cemetery to express anger at God: feeling angry at the all-wise, all-good God is a sinful response to loss. Or you might come to the cemetery to say, “I need you so urgently that I’m going to try to communicate with the dead.” Now, God said to Israel in Deuteronomy 18:10–12, “There shall not be found among you . . . a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.” It’s a sin to try to set up a communication with the dead.
Or another form that this unfaithful response might take would be coming to the cemetery to do penance for all the ways you can remember that you failed the person who has died. You feel guilty, and you think that perhaps if you show enough sorrow at the graveside, it will make up for the wrongs that you did. And the problem with that is that Christ does not teach us to deal with our failures and our sins that way. He understands our failures and our guilt feelings. And believe me, every one of us at the graveside of someone we loved is going to feel this: we’re going to feel a sense of failure; we’re going to remember all the ways we could have loved so much better — yes, we will. But the solution to that painful problem of guilt is not more hours of penance in the cemetery in the rain, but more trust in the all-sufficiency of the blood of Christ.
So, those are a few of the ways that coming to the cemetery might be unbiblical and unhealthy.
Seven Reasons to Come to the Cemetery
What about healthy ways? I’ll just mention seven points.
1. Come to weep.
There is no question but that losing someone you love is worse than an amputation, and amputations hurt. Bidden or unbidden, the tears flow. It is right that they do so, and the graveside is a most fitting place for those tears.
2. Come to be sobered by your own mortality.
Contemplate your own inevitable death at the cemetery. As the psalmist says, we should get a heart of wisdom by numbering our days (Psalm 90:12). Few things blow the fog of worldliness away like the loss of a loved one, so come to the cemetery and let your loss teach you wisdom for the brief life that remains.
3. Come to rekindle the fires of resurrection hope.
Let the graveside stoke your hope of being with Christ. As you stand beside the grave of the body that will decay, the body that you held perhaps, lift up your eyes to heaven and believe the promise that what is sown in dishonor will be raised in glory (1 Corinthians 15:43).
4. Come to meditate.
Think; ponder: What can I learn from this loss? What would I have done differently? What are the implications of this void in my life for my future? What can I learn about God in Christ and about salvation and the meaning and purpose of life from this painful vantage point? It is a rare and precious moment, and there is so much to learn.
5. Come to express respect and honor.
Was it not a high privilege to have been their friend or spouse, or the admirer from a distance of this deceased person? I want to pay tribute to their value in my life. I owe them so much. By my presence here I am saying, “I honor them. I respect them. I pay tribute to them and to the God who gave me the privilege of knowing them.”
6. Come to give thanks.
It is virtually inevitable that we will feel thankfulness welling up in our hearts to those we loved and lost. We would like them to know this, but we know that trying to communicate directly with the dead is a sin. And so, all of our thanks is offered up to God, and he would not begrudge us the prayerful suggestion that he inform our redeemed loved one how we feel. But mainly we are overflowing with thankfulness to God for their life, and what it meant for us and still means to us, and what a great place to say it and feel it.
7. Come to the cemetery to be inspired.
Be made hopeful by the promises of God, that he will be with you from this day on. He will help us, he will strengthen us, he will uphold us with the right hand of his righteousness (Isaiah 41:10). He will sanctify to us all our sorrow. He will make us useful in the days to come for the good of others and for his glory and for our own joy.