When I went to seminary, we never talked about cemeteries. We had lessons and discussions about funerals, pastoral counseling for grief, and end of life issues. We did not talk about cemeteries.
And yet clergy so often find themselves in cemeteries. Sometimes, weekly or more often. It stops being macabre and becomes part of the routine.
My first parish was on the northern shore of New Brunswick, on the Bay of Chaleur. It is a mystical place. Ghost ships appear in certain seasons. My house faced the bay, with the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec on the far shore. When I looked out my kitchen windows, all I saw was water and the misty headland.
The wind blew constantly, usually just below gale force. The trees had branches only on the leeward side. At night, as I lay in bed in that high old ark of a manse, the house shook with the gusts, and the attics howled at its gaps. During the day, as I sat at work near a window, I could hear pieces of shale rattling against the panes, lifted up the eroding cliff by surges in the air currents.
The church cemetery was just down the road, across from the church. It was on the top of a one hundred foot high cliff, a slowly eroding cliff, and we were losing one or two feet of shoreline a year. I estimated we would start losing the graves nearest the edge in less than a decade. In a hundred years, maybe sooner, the church itself would be gone. The sandstone cliffs were falling into the bay, accelerated by rising water levels and more acidic sea water. The community itself was slowly dying. I felt as if I was keeping hospice for it.
The church we usually used for funerals was the old one, a wooden timber frame structure very much like an up-ended boat. It was narrow and high; the distant beams were shrouded in ancient cobwebs, dust and melancholy mystery. There was a very incongruent Masonic window where a Rose window should have been, and I hated it with great passion. I had no charity toward facing my people with a pentacle in my field of vision, or having it over my shoulder as I said the Eucharist.
The rest of the stained glass was recent, and bad, as in bad as hideous. It was executed in a moronic, ham-fisted style, simplistic without being simple. It was stained glass from the chapel of hell. I considered recruiting local vandals to break it all.
The church was full of strange sounds and echoes, sighs and grumblings. Things moved around overnight. I felt a great resistance of spirit there: I was the first woman to preach and lead worship in the building, in a history extending back more than a hundred years.
My first funeral in that building fell about two months after I arrived. The day before the funeral, as I sat writing the sermon in the midst of a screaming gale, part of my roof lifted off the house and landed in the back yard. I had to run to the attic with drop cloths and buckets.
The deceased, Mortimer O’Reilly, had been my neighbour across the road. I spent many days with him in his last illness. I used the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer funeral rite, from 1662.
“The Priest and Clerks meeting the Corpse at the entrance of the Church-yard, and
going before it, either into the Church, or towards the Grave, shall say, or sing,
I AM the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he
were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never
I KNOW that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shalt stand at the latter day upon the
earth. And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see
God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another.
WE brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The
Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the Name of the Lord.”
The storm had not abated. The two elderly bachelor brothers, neighbours to the church, had dug the grave, fulfilling their vow to the parish to dig the graves by hand, up until Mort should die. A decade before, imprecise directions had caused a backhoe operator to misjudge where to dig, and he opened a grave that already had an occupant.
It was Canon Verey’s grave. The coffin lid came up with the first strike, and with the second, his cassock, collar, and sternum. The backhoe operator then noticed the shreds of black cloth hanging from the teeth of the digger. The man swore he would never dig another grave, and had not set foot in the cemetery all those years.
The day of Mort’s funeral was still wild, a dark day of wind and sleet. The ground was saturated, the grave itself was a foot full of water. I asked the funeral director to keep the widow in the car while we went to the graveside. He said, “The problem is, we can’t get the hearse to the grave. I’m not sure we can get into the cemetery at all. The pall bearers are going to carry the casket across the road.”
The car for the widow remained in the church parking lot, and she and her youngest daughter watched the procession from there. The funeral director gave up on the umbrella he was trying to hold over my head. My cassock and surplice were soon soaked, but I had worn sturdy shepherd boots. Still, the long autumn grass was slippery with sleet, and he held onto my arm, steadying my small body against the buffeting of the wind. The six pall bearers struggled with the casket across the road and trod carefully among the old graves.
At graveside, the funeral director realized that the hydraulic frame for lowering the casket would not hold in the sandy brink. The pall bearers, grizzled ex-sailors and railroad men, silently and efficiently threaded straps through the handles of the casket, braced themselves on the sides and lowered their old friend gently.
I stood beside the family headstone, the funeral director holding my shoulders from behind as the verge of the grave slowly melted under my feet.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” And the handful of grave dirt I cast three times on the coffin rattled loud over the banshee screams of the north wind.
The funeral director anchored me back to the church. I opened the car door, embraced the widow, and sent her home with her children. He and I stood in the parking lot for a minute. “Get in the hearse,” he said, “I’ll drop you at your house. You look like you could use a drop of whiskey.”
He, too, was soaked through, his hair plastered down with rain, his black suit dripping. “You could too,” I offered.
Back at the manse, the hearse parked in my driveway, I turned on the electric fire in the living room. We stood before it, water cascading out of our clothes, while we each downed two hefty shots of the Glenlivet.
“See you next time,” he said.