Note: I know that the holidays are often marked with sadness for those who have gone before us. I pray for all of us that the promise of our savior Jesus Christ will bring peace to know he has taken them home to heaven. The birth of Christ is the beginning of our celebration of eternal life that is magnified at Easter in His Resurrection. May our Catholic Cemetery of Immaculate Conception always be a place of peace, joy, and hope in the Resurrection!

Child's play version of Jesus' tomb and resurrection.Twelve years ago, when “Uncle Skip” died it left its deepest and most profound effect on Sara (5yrs) and Ashton (4yrs), two of his many great nieces and nephews. Ashton and Sara, while helping in the process of emptying a house of 80 years of life would honor their uncle by rescuing a souvenir at each visit. For Ashton, who had deemed himself “the worker”, would select a hammer, saw, screwdriver or wrench from the basement in memory. Sara, who was interested in remnants of Skip’s wife’s collection of trinkets would bring home a small music or jewelry box, a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or our Blessed Lady, and a rosary for her memorial.

This was by no means pilfering the spoils of a dead man but a true picking of salvageable images of a good God-fearing and hard-working man that was much admired. Each visit to the house always ended with a tear of sorrow and a heartfelt loss expressed by one “I miss Uncle Skip” while the other was quick to console with the comforting affirmation that they too missed him and I wish he would not have had to die! Grandma’s answer would always be the simple truth: Uncle Skip loves you and now he does from heaven!

Many years later, and most recently Ashton and Sara lost their great-grandparents and the sorrow and loss were even more profound since they were a part of their everyday life growing up. The words that Grandma spoke at the time of Uncle Skip’s death were the lynchpin of hope that they would apply to the loss of their great grandparents: “They are not among the dead but the living” in heaven and with them always.

Close-up of Sara smiling and holding a toy angel,Sara, of course, who you know as the Christmas Angel, and I were talking about cemeteries, death, and the need to see it with hope and joy instead of despair and loss. We talked about it for a brief time and I realized she had a great grasp of life after death and the relationships that we can still have with those who have gone before us. Cemeteries and the sacred places which we may visit not the dead but to remember the living.

I want to share a reflection that Sara wrote per our conversation and I hope it helps you to see if we understand Jesus’ birth into our lives and also hope in the fulfillment of that promise in heaven. From the Christmas angel to the angel at the tomb of Jesus, who said to Mary Magdala: “Why do you look for the living among the dead … they are not here!”

The Land of the Living Dead:
A Different View of Cemeteries

Close-up of Sara smiling.The old foreground trees are beginning to lose their golden-brown leaves, littering the lavish green grass with beautiful reds and yellows. Faux flowers that are matched to the season are in a bouquet on the front and sides of the gray headstones. The sun’s rays are shining down upon the hills of the vast cemetery, and all is calm in the world. I stand in front of my great grandparents’ grave-and my mind is quiet. Studying the sun’s reflection upon a smooth block of maroon granite, examining the solar lights that are set on either side and taking note of the new bed of rocks laid around the grave is loved.

Yet, as my eyes trail past the engraving of their last name, my heart begins to beat quicker. A mournful feeling swirls around in the pit of my stomach, missing their life so much. As I read their names over and over again the dates of birth and death I see them standing there before me. My pap’s loving gaze meets my eyes, his hand slightly extended waiting for my ritual hug. My nan stands next to him, her usually stern look has been replaced with a peaceful smile-and her eyes have a twinkle to them that I have never seen before.

That painful weight in my stomach is lifted and a light sense rises into the beat of my heart. My mind fills with memories of them sitting down for Sunday brunch, my pap taking my cousin and me golfing at his favorite driving range, and my nan telling us to quiet down for the third time as she cooks in the kitchen. I had only known them for 16 years, but they had lived full lives of pain and sorrow, joy and happiness, sickness and health but now they live a life of pure bliss. They are at peace in the heavens, watching over me and my life which I still have so much to experience. My grandparents’ grave is not just a piece of stone that sits on the ground in a yard of other various stones, their grave is the symbol of the life they lived, and the heaven they now live in.

I draw my eyes away from the headstone and begin to walk up and down the aligned rows within the cemetery gates. I see a concrete slab with a bear engraved into the front. Words carved into others: “Our Son,” “Mom and Dad,” “Nurse and Loving Mother,” and “Husband and Wife.” Simple yet lasting sayings like “Together Forever,” and “In Loving Memory of,” and “Forever in Our Hearts.” Portraits of people, engravings of golf clubs, pictures of angles, war statements, wedding bands, and small knickknacks sat on the edges of the headstones. The cemetery is not full of meaningless dull name plaques, the cemetery is full of stories-lives lived to their fullest and memories documented. Behind that thick finished stone, under the ground which our feet walk upon, and engraved within the names of people, is a physical life that has been lived and a destined soul-bound life.

Horror movies have branded cemeteries as the “Land of the Living Dead”-and even though they are referencing zombies and mummies, the cemetery actually is a place of the living dead. People have passed from our lives, but they still continue to peacefully live in the presence of God. Heaven-bound souls that have left their physical bodies on earth reside within the gates of heaven, and their graves stand as windows into that hopeful life. Those of us who know loved ones who have passed are reminded of the good and the bad times when we visit the cemetery. We are reminded of the love we shared and still continue to share with those who have left us. And we hope that one day in the future when we fulfill a similar destiny, that those who we have touched will stand there, on the ground before our graves, and feel similar things. For when one leaves us physically, God allows them to still live on within our memories, our love, and our souls. One grave site, in particular, had a small plaque with the following words displayed: “Those we love don’t go away, they walk beside us every day, unseen, unheard, but always near, so loved, so missed, so very dear.”

Walking through the cemetery reminds me that death is not something to be afraid of, nor is it an end to life. When the time comes, my life will not simply end with the snap of a finger. My soul will continue to live on in heaven, and my life will still be alive in the heartbeats of those dear to me-just like my grandparents, and just like everyone who lives in the light of the Lord. “I thought of you with love today, but that is nothing new. I thought about you yesterday, and days before that too. Your memory is my keepsake, with which I’ll never part. God has you in His keep, I have you in my heart.”