Churchyards bear witness to the unity of believers in Christ.
This past week I attended a clergy retreat at a charming 19th century Methodist church in the Virginia countryside. The church sat alone in a forest clearing. A cemetery surrounded it on three sides. Gravestones crept up close to the church walls. Dates on the stones dated back to the early decades of that century.
As I strolled through the churchyard, I began to reflect that every time the congregation gathers in this church for Sunday worship they do so surrounded by all the faithful dead. The living do not, therefore, worship alone. The congregation includes the generations past and presumably the generations to come.
Most Christians today do not realize that this custom of burying the dead around the church or even inside the church (as in many great cathedrals) is a distinctly Christian practice. This becomes clear when we compare the Christian practice with the burial practices of the pagan Romans.
The ancient Romans both buried and cremated their dead. But whether they were burying a body or simply placing an urn of ashes in a tomb, the rule was that the dead could not be interred inside the city walls. This is the reason why we find the ancient roads leading into Rome lined with tombs. The construction of the tombs, however, ends at the city gates, And no tomb would ever be constructed inside a temple. The realm of the living and the realm of the dead were kept distinctly separate.
That all changed when Christianity became the religion of the empire. Christians began to bury their dead in the same locations where they worshipped. So tombs began to be constructed inside churches. Shrines to the martyrs and saints became part of the church furnishings. And cemeteries were arranged near or around the church. As a result we got those picturesque churchyards surrounding parish churches that we see scattered all across Europe and often in America.
I find this Christian custom a strikingly visible way of affirming the Christian belief in the communion of saints.
The Eastern Orthodox affirm this same communion in a different way. They line the walls of their churches with frescoes or mosaics that represent the whole cloud of the blessed who join in their worship. When the liturgy begins, the saints in heaven and the saints on earth become mystically one.
When we join in our worship, we Christians need to remember that we never worship alone. We are united with believers across the world geographically and with believers in all the ages. Together we constitute one body and one voice in raising our praise to the Lord.