Giving Thanks for Christ Church Cemetery,
Poplar Lake, Alberta
(By the Revd. Don Aellen, Rector, Church of St. John the Evangelist, Edmonton, Alberta)
Urban clergy are faced with a conundrum raised by urban cemeteries and modern cultural burial practice. In the liturgy preceding burial, we proclaim Christ’s victory over the grave – “Yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia!” We proclaim that there is nothing that can separate us from the love of Christ – “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities …” We have talked about the mystery of Christ hallowing human life, which is why we handle the body with respect and dignity and love – that body that was the temple of the Holy Spirit, and made in the image of God. And our forebears in faith knew that when we lowered that body into the ground, and backfilled the grave with our own hands and muscle, we did so in the sure hope of the resurrection of the dead – that this grave will not be able to contain the life that Christ will restore to the one whom we love but see no longer.
Then urban clergy get to urban cemeteries – and all that theological oomph goes out of the sail; we go to a grave side where there is no mound of earth taken to create the grave; cemetery policies that are reluctant even to lower the casket into the ground (what do we think we are there for, anyway?) and no way for mourners to have a hands-on participation in backfilling a grave – denied a powerful pastoral action that is healing to our grief.
Current attitudes toward death and urban cemetery policies separate and sanitize the event of death. That which is very real is made to seem somehow less real. Most often I feel we have been cheated out of something that should rightfully belong to us as people of the Resurrected Christ.
Recently, I had the opportunity to preside over the burial of a dear sister in Christ, at Christ Church Cemetery, Poplar Lake. I was delighted to see a huge mound of soil beside the grave, the backhoe that dug it parked nearby, the contractor with his boom and winch at hand. The mourners gathered around the grave. We had time and space to pray, to pray for the hallowing of the grave, to sing. And there was no hesitation when it came to lowering the body fully into the place of repose. And when I prayed, “earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life …”, I had real handfuls of dirt to throw onto the coffin and in the sign of the Cross. We witnessed the contractor winching the lid down on top of the grave liner, seeing the sealing of the grave while we prayed that only the Resurrection would disturb this place of rest. Family grabbed shovels and began to backfill. Others joined in, using their hands. And everyone felt less helpless, less bereft, less separated; it was as though we were still acting in love and connection, seeing our sister cared for by those who loved her. A curious joy pervaded, a hope, a finishing, that allowed everyone to leave with greater grace and trust.
I was and am very grateful to know that there is a cemetery that allows us to act out the faith we proclaim. It’s been a long time since I was a rural priest where such practices are still normal. I realized anew how potent it is; and I’m grateful for Christ Church Cemetery.