Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Churchyards, Cemeteries, and Celebrations of the Gifts We Are Given

If you're relatively new here, the following story will make a lot more sense after you read the first and second paragraphs, starting from under the image of the illuminated manuscript, of yesterday's post.  It will also help to know that Jon grew up in the Anglican tradition and was a tenor in his choir at school, so we share similar memories of sacred music and the rituals of liturgy.  (I hate preambles but sometimes they are necessary!)

On the third day of our honeymoon in Norfolk, after sailing out to see the seals and then enjoying a brisk coastal walk, we explored the little village of Stiffkey.  We stumbled on a gorgeous old church, parts of which date from the 15th century, and spent a glorious half hour wandering the grounds.  The cemetery was particularly moving; many of the gravestones had inscriptions from the 17th and 18th centuries.  An especially sad one marked the memory of a 21 year old woman who was buried there along with her infant - the stone read:
A loving Wife, a Mother dear,
A faithful Friend lies buried here;
Here days with me, was short and sweet
I hope in Heaven with her to meet.
It sounds morbid, but the churchyard was such a peaceful place.  The day was brilliantly sunny and you could hear only the birds in the trees - it was almost as it time paused there.  As we walked towards the gate to leave, Jon began singing a hymn under his breath:
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
At that moment, I could not have been more present, aware of and grateful for everything I had.  I was with my husband on our honeymoon, standing in a beautiful cemetery and gazing up at the church tower reaching towards a clear blue sky, and Jon knew exactly the perfect hymn for the occasion.  In that place, surrounded by those who had died centuries earlier, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world.

In a post from early November of last year, I wrote, "Today is All Saints' Day and tomorrow is All Souls' Day in the Anglican calendar, so it seems appropriate to remember and honor those who have gone before us. It's also a reminder that the responsibility of love is also a gift - it's an amazing blessing to have these people in our lives, to cherish them so deeply and to be held the same way. It's a gift in the same way that faith is a gift; I don't know how to put it into words, but, as I think about it, love and life and faith and trust and responsibility seem to bleed into each other more and more."

A year on, my belief in this idea has only strengthened and, while it seemed scary when I first published that post, now I find it comforting.  I hope that the husband who buried his young wife and baby in 1806 felt not scared but comforted as his family was interred in that quiet churchyard.  What gifts he must have had though he grieved for them!

linking up with Bonnie Rose for Travel Tuesdays
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  1. Betsy, I love this post so much. You took such meaning from your visit to this church and cemetery and how beautiful that Jon began humming this hymn. I might have cried ;) Faith and love and life are so tied up together, you're so right about that.

  2. How absolutely, heartbreakingly beautiful. I haven't got my head wrapped around matters of faith, but the feelings this post brings me tell me my heart is just fine with it.

  3. Love walking around cemeteries at churches and then inside the churches here and all the markers on the walls and reading the dates.

  4. I find graveyards fascinating places - I suppose the storyteller in me wonders about all of those people and their paths.

  5. Georgia ChristakisNovember 5, 2013 at 2:49 PM

    So true, Betsy. What a pretty hymn. Makes me think of Tennyson's in Memoriam, though it's a bit darker. Apparently Queen Victoria read it regularly after Albert died.

  6. I thought I wanted to be cremated - you know, when the time comes - but places like this sway me.

  7. the church was locked, unfortunately, but we peeked through the windows and it looked starkly lovely.

  8. One of my favorite things to do when in a place rich with history is to walk through a historical cemetery. There's actually a famous one, Graceland Cemetery, right down the street from our apartment that I'll be touring this fall. It's amazing what perspective and reflection a stroll through the hallowed grounds can bring. I love that Jon started humming that hymn, reminds me of my father (which is a very good thing in my opinion) :)

  9. I always thought there was something so beautiful about cemeteries. These images are just beautiful!
    xo TJ


  10. I love places like this. They can be so moving and beautiful, and you can't help but wonder about the lives of all the people who have come that way. It's so nice to reflect on the gifts and love in your life!


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