The Cemetery: a Place of Horror or Hope? – Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time


In the first reading today, we have some of the oldest and most important verses in all of the Scriptures. These verses were recited twice a day by the Hebrew people ever since the time of Moses. They were the first words of prayer taught to children. There was a tradition that when a Jew was on their deathbed the most powerful words they could finish their life with, were the words of these verses.

Hear, O Israel! The LORD our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

For the Israelites, these verses were so powerful, firstly, because in just a few words they summarized the entire scriptures and, secondly, because they were the key to prosperity and happiness. They constantly reminded themselves in the verses of this prayer that there is only one God and that the greatest thing anyone could do is to love him with their heart, soul and strength.


Fast forward about 3000 years, and one of the scribes posed a question to Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Without missing a beat, Jesus recited the traditional answer, “Hear O Israel…” In doing this, Jesus affirmed the traditional faith of the Israelites. But, did you notice, that the prayer didn’t end as it usually did. Jesus added a line, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”


In adding “love of neighbour” to “love of God” Jesus was trying to teach them that they were like two sides of the same coin, so intricately connected that they are impossible to separate. Basically saying, if you don’t love God you can’t fully love your neighbour and if you don’t love your neighbour you can’t fully love God. This idea was echoed in the First Letter of St. John: If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar. Reflecting on all of this, Dorothy Day, an American and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, offered this insight, “We love God as much as the person we love the least.” To put it another way, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The Love of God should so penetrate our souls so as to affect everything we think and do, even how we treat our worst enemies. Perhaps one of the best images of this teaching of Jesus was captured by a photographer in a prison in Turkey as a convicted assassin received as his guest the man he tried to kill and that man, blessed John Paul II came to forgive him.


In the month of November, the Church asks us to consider “Love of Neighbour,” in a particular way: in how we remember the dead and pray for them. On November 1st we celebrated All Saints Day, which is a day to honour all of the unrecognized saints, the one’s who are known to God alone. On November 2nd we celebrated All Souls Day, which is a day devoted honouring all of the dead who are on their way to Heaven, but not their yet. In offering our prayers for them we are reminded that we are still connected to them and that our prayers can really aid them in their final purification.


Over the last few days as we have been going through all of this, there has been another very important holiday enjoyed by many: Halloween. One of the things I enjoyed this year was seeing all of the faces that children carved into their pumpkins. My favourite for the year was this depressed, exhausted, about to give up kind of face with a wide open mouth. And trickling out of the mouth was all kinds of candies. I suppose it was a child’s way of expressing the day after Halloween when you have the biggest stomach ache ever. At the same time, one of the things that I am uncomfortable about with regards to Halloween is how it can sometimes make light of tombs and tombstones, coffins and cemeteries. Sometimes you can see a mock cemetery set up in front of a house which replicates something you would see a horror movie. I find this disturbing particularly because I don’t think it fits with a Catholic understanding of what the cemetery really is.


For Catholics, the cemetery is not supposed to be a place of horror, ghosts, and zombies. It’s supposed to be a place of great hope. It is here that we place the body or ashes of our loved ones as a place of waiting. We believe that when Jesus comes again he will raise up the bodies of all of the dead and death will be no more. This is why for Catholics it’s so important to bury the dead or have them encased in a mausoleum, because it’s a sign of our hope in the promise of Jesus. I understand why for many people cemeteries can be uncomfortable places, because we usually go their at the most difficult moments of our lives, the death of a loved one. But I would say that visiting the cemetery afterwards should be both consoling and healing. First, we are reminded of the promise of the resurrection, second, we are united when we pray over the tomb of the person buried there, third, we remember that person, all of their good qualities and are inspired by the way they lived their life.

A few years ago I visited a friend in Poland and one of the things that he insisted upon was taking me to the cemetery to visit the tomb of his grandfather. We went and he described his experience of visiting the cemetery in November. It was filled with people praying and remembering their loved ones. Everyone would bring candles and in the dark of the night you could see the cemetery from far away. It was a light in the darkness, a place of great hope and expectation, it was a sacred place.

During this month of November, I encourage each of you to “Love your Neighbour” by remembering the dead, praying for their souls and visiting them in the cemetery. If you can, take a flower or a candle, and focus on the cemetery as a place of great hope, as we all, the living and the dead, look for and await the second coming of Jesus, when he will raise the dead from their graves and bring their bodies back to life.


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