Walking through the cemeteries on All Souls Day is a great Catholic tradition that goes back many centuries. Not only does it provide an excellent opportunity to receive a plenary indulgence, but it also reminds us so much about the meaning and purpose in our brief walk through this world.
Strolling through the broken paths of a graveyard, one can’t help but noting the tombstones. Each one is so different from the other ones that surround it. Some are great monuments with life-size statues of the crucified Christ with Mary and John beside him, and yet others only barely pop out of the ground and are so moss-covered that it is very difficult to see them among the uncut grass. The names on the stones also are hard to go unseen: “Smith”, “Cooper”, “Johnson”, “Bentley”, “Miller”, “Wilson”, etc. etc. Questions spontaneously arise: How where these men and women like? Were they popular and loved, or poor and abandoned? Were they famous and successful, or are they here because of some great tragedy in their life? What did they look like? What did they do? And above all, where are they now?
Though they might all be different, they are now the same: each just a memory etched into a marble slab.
This might be a sad reality for some people, especially for those who have recently lost a loved one. But for a Christian, one of the great lessons that death teaches us is to hope. As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote: “While there is life, there is still hope.”
It’s always a good thing to visit a cemetery, but the greatest thing is to be able to walk out of it. Thanks be to God we are still alive! What meaning life gives when one realizes that it is truly a gift! How small our troubles seem when we compare it with the eternity that awaits us.
A very famous Latin philosopher in the first century who often meditated on life and death was Seneca. Although a pagan, his words ring true in our hearts today: “During our whole life time, we must learn how to die.”
All things pass: fame, money, comfort; even the things that we most love and care about in our life. Among the events involving the acceptance of Anglicans into full communion with the Church, one bishop was asked if it did not upset him that on becoming Roman Catholic he would lose his title as bishop. His response was clear and true, “Who cares. Soon I’ll be in a wooden box in front of the altar. What matters is the bigger picture. God matters, the truth matters. We as individuals don’t matter. We think we matter but we don’t.”
Who are we to decide if our life is worthy or not? “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” Gandalf reminds us. At the end of our lives, the only thing that matters is what we have done for Christ and for our brothers.
One day, we will also have our tombstone marking out a hole in the ground. But thanks be to God it doesn’t end there. Eternity gives meaning to life, and it also gives meaning to death.
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