For most cancer patients I would imagine shopping for a burial plot would be a serious and sober pursuit! Nothing feels more final than looking at the place you will be buried one day; especially if that day is more imminent than hoped.
I suggested to my husband of 43 years that we look for our next real estate purchase at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, a beautiful 269-acre expanse where people walk, jog, and bike. (Live dogs not allowed for obvious reasons, but one may be buried with their pet for an additional fee.) Tour guides recount the biographies of famous residents including a US president, many members of Congress, Seneca Nation chiefs, and the inventor of modern indoor air conditioning. The walking paths, valleys and hills, meandering creek, visually arresting monuments and obelisks, and trees of all different species are enhanced by magnificent columbarium’s, mausoleums, and a stone chapel.
And thankfully it is not just for the wealthy and privileged. My daughter has seen a procession of Congolese refugees dressed in white slowly walking towards a child’s resting place.
However, I want to be very sensitive towards those who have every reason to be sobered, anguished, and grieving as they themselves have had or will have the heart-wrenching task of arranging a burial place for their child. It is quite heartbreaking to see burial stones of young lives cut short. The poignant short, engraved inscriptions tell the story of loss so unimaginable! So, the thoughts in this post may not be for you.
But that was not our experience. David and I enjoyed ourselves as the cemetery manager showed us plots and told us stories. I wanted a site under a stately tree on a hill. I figured this would be a challenge given that over 165,000 ‘permanent residents’ had picked sites before me. But eventually, the manager found two sites together that were exactly what I wanted with a bonus view of my favorite sculpture in the cemetery.
Of course, once the site is selected and secured, one must decide on a grave marker. I noticed some residents had a stone bench as their memorial. That was what I wanted. I imagined something like, “Hi! We were Dona and David Eley. Have a seat and think of the Wonders of God.” Unfortunately, that idea did not fly. The “Hi, have a seat,” sounds like me but more than a bit much for David. And our enthusiasm waned when told a minimum of three plots must be purchased to have a bench.
There are many residents of Forest Lawn who over the last three centuries have erected more than mere benches: monuments and mausoleums costing well over a million in today’s dollars. Awesome in their architecture and artistic flair – quite stunning!
A teacher, still living, purchased several plots in the middle of Forest Lawn and then engraved an unpublished short story he had written, in its entirety, on two massive stones. I read the sweet story but walked away wondering about human beings search for remembrance and possibly immortality.
And then there was the family who wanted to inscribe something profane that the deceased was frequently known to say. The manager nixed that. Children visit Forest Lawn.
And then there is juxtaposition. On the morning we purchased our plots, the cemetery manager was late for our meeting because he had met a middle-aged woman who had wandered through Forest Lawn for a couple of hours looking for her grandmother’s grave. She waited 10 years to look for it. There is obviously a story here, but the manager’s concern was that she had been looking for hours on a hot morning and was becoming dehydrated. A search of the cemetery’s database located the unmarked site where the grandmother had been interned 10 years ago.
Back to me. Why do I want to be buried in a beautiful park in the middle of Buffalo; a cemetery locally famous for its rolling hills, fascinating monuments, and rich history? Honestly, it is because it increases the chances that family and friends might more frequently come here to exercise, stroll or picnic on a summer day, and in coming to Forest Lawn pause and REMEMBER me. I am not completely comfortable with this realization. Afterall, I will never know who has visited the site of my bones. And, I will not care. I will be in a place much more glorious.
Cemeteries are certainly reminders that we live in a broken world in which none of us will survive. We will all die, and each culture and individual have customs or preferences as to how to honor the deceased. Some will defy customs and choose radically different expressions for their worldview. My hope is that all worldviews will give way to God’s eternal view.
Burial sites, whether unmarked or colossally grand, will matter none to the eternal creator and sustainer who embraces those that trust him to deliver them from death! There is a place where we will be immortal. Earlier in this post I noted that my plot has a view of my favorite sculpture in Forest Lawn. This sculpture pictures that time of the great resurrection, where we are lifted into the arms of God. (1 Corinthians 15 develops the full impact of this.)
And then there is the famous monument in Utah for Matthew Stanford Robison, who, born paralyzed, died in his sleep at 11 years old. A poignant vision of the resurrection, it captures perfectly that time when we Christians believe that “all sad things will become untrue.”
Our 9-year old grandson accompanied us on one of our visits to Forest Lawn. He noted that many headstones were ideally positioned for jumping and climbing from one to another. We reluctantly told him that would be inappropriate. He told us he wanted his tombstone inscription to say, “Children are welcome to climb up and play here.”
Jesus will think that is just fine. (Matthew 18:1-5)