General. Why do I sit here? To escape from the pirates’ clutches, I described myself as an orphan; and, heaven help me, I am no orphan! I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.
Frederic. But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco on your baronial castle is scarcely dry.
General. Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.
This bit of dialog from the 1879 comic operetta The Pirates of Penzance by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) came to mind during a study group discussion at my church earlier this week. The exchange is meant to be humorous, but during our discussion I began to think that Gilbert and Sullivan, through the person of their “very model of a modern major general,” perhaps accidentally hit on something profound. I’ll explain why shortly.
The country church where my parents grew up (and where they currently attend) has a feature not uncommon to rural Southern churches in that it has a cemetery on the property. Members of at least three generations of my family are buried there, and though I have not frequently done so I have never found it difficult to visit the various markers there after a Sunday service. Somehow, having the deceased members of a congregation buried on the property has always seemed normal to me, even though until two years ago I had never been part of a church that had this feature (aside from periodic visits to my parents’/grandparents’ church). As a young person, I tended to think it strange that modern urban and suburban churches do not have cemeteries on their properties. As an adult, I have come to think that this not just a quirk of modern urban development, but rather something that is to the impoverishment of church members. I have three primary reasons for this.
1. Cemeteries remind us that we will die. At College Hill Presbyterian Church, the education building and sanctuary are separated by a somewhat lengthy walk past (though not through) the cemetery. The sanctuary dates to the 1840s, and thus both it and the oldest grave markers on the property are rather old by American standards. I have visited or read of other old churches both in Europe and America where the markers are not just near the buildings but are immediately around them or even in them. In modern societies we take great pains to avoid contemplating the transience of this life, but one major purpose of Christian worship and practice is, quite literally, to prepare ourselves to die. Walking by those headstones has a way of forcing us to think about such things.
2. Cemeteries remind us of history generally. Our church property served as a headquarters for the Union Army under Generals Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) and William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) during the Civil War, which probably explains why it survived the war unlike just about every other building in Oxford. Along with members of the church, both Union and Confederate soldiers are buried on the property, as well as a number of slaves. Walking through old cemeteries like this has a way of making one reckon with history, including parts we might prefer to forget.
3. Cemeteries remind us of our history specifically. Visiting the cemetery at Ephesus Baptist Church is like walking through my family history. Looking around, I see not only my family name but those of grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and relations I can’t begin to trace even with the best web-based tools. To my knowledge, I have no family connection to anyone buried at College Hill Presbyterian Church. And yet, by becoming part of this congregation I have established a connection not only to my fellow worshippers there in the present, but in some sense to those generations of Christians who came before, many of whose resting places I walk by a couple of times a week. Those people’s lives no doubt included joys and successes as well as sadness and failures, both material and spiritual. And yet they established and sustained a place of ministry that has endured for nearly two centuries, and, God willing, the faithful ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer will continue there for many years go come. It is helpful, I think, to have such tangible reminders of the past so near at hand.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s general was not a particularly effective soldier, and his fear of dishonoring his “ancestors by purchase” was absurd and at least somewhat misguided. And yet, whether accidentally or on purpose, he reminds us that the history of a place matters, and when we adopt a place or institution as our own its history becomes to some extent ours to remember, learn from, and, where appropriate, honor.