What’s the difference between a cemetery and a graveyard?
The word “cemetery” is from the Greek κοιμητήριον (sleeping place) and is simply a place for burying our dead. A graveyard, though, is a kind of cemetery distinguished by being a part of the churchyard surrounding the church-house.
When I took our first call to pastor a yoked parish in Wisconsin, our country parish was Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Cambria, Wisconsin, and Rosedale had a graveyard. It butted up against the back and extended some distance to the east and west of the church-house.
The setting was instructive. Each day driving by and each Lord’s Day when we gathered for worship, we saw our loved ones resting there. They never ceased calling out to us of our coming end. Death and burial were ever-present reminders to us that our Heavenly Father had set our days, minutes, and seconds, and one day soon we would all rest with our fathers there in the graveyard.
“Rest with our fathers?”
This is how the Bible speaks of death and burial. “He slept with his fathers” is used in parallel construction with “he was buried with his fathers.”
And Rehoboam slept with his fathers and was buried with his fathers in the city of David. (1Kings 14:31)
It is such tenderness for fathers, sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons to rest together awaiting the coming of our Lord Jesus in power and glory.
In Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery where President Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address, my great grandfather, Joseph Tate Bayly I, is buried beside his father (my great-great grandfather) John Bayly.
Down the hill a bit resting with his fathers is my grandfather, Joseph Tate Bayly II. When our dear Aunt Elaine died, we drove her to Gettysburg and buried her there with her fathers and mothers.
Yes, you can carry your loved ones across state lines yourself, without hiring strangers to do it. We’ve done it several times. Imagine how tender it was to arrive at Evergreen Cemetery and carry Aunt Elaine from our Honda Odyssey thirty feet over to her grave, laying her there and saying Thomas Cranmer’s committal service graveside with my mother and a couple friends and relatives who drove to join us there.
But Evergreen Cemetery is not a graveyard.
While we served Rosedale, a patriarch of the church died. His name was Sam Westra and he had taken a stand for God none of us will ever forget during a church meeting a year or two earlier. Sam was a towering sequoia of a man. Each Lord’s Day he wore an ancient dark wool suit whose coat hung down almost to his knees. He spoke few words but had a warm smile.
Soon after our arrival, I called on Sam at home. My faith was strengthened seeing his Bible at the center of his house, right under his phone hanging on the wall.
Each Lord’s Day Sam arrived at the church-house in his tiny Plymouth Horizon. It was a sight to see him unfolding his hugeness from the driver’s seat. Sam was at least six feet six inches, but he only walked six feet two because his last four inches were permanently folded forward in the stoop of the aged.
Sam’s sister, Josie Dykstra, was almost as tall as her brother. She died at home and, along with several family members including Chuck and Sharon Dykstra, I was there in her bedroom to hear Sam say goodbye. Folding his towering frame in half, he kissed Josie. Then, as he stood back up, he waved and promised her, “See you there.”
Back to Sam’s Bible: it strengthened my faith because it was dirty. Large print and thick, the pages were brown from use. People told me the village of Cambria could set their watches by Sam arriving at the nursing home each day to brush the hair of his wife, who was deep in dementia.
Sam was in his nineties and in God’s perfect time he too died. We buried him in our graveyard. In town, Mary Lee and I lived in the manse next to the church. We shared a back yard with the funeral home and I was often asked to officiate at the last rites of men, women, and one newborn who had no church or shepherd. The first couple of years in ministry, I recollect doing twenty-nine funerals—almost all in one of the area cemeteries unadorned by any house of God whose steeple pointed up to God the Father Almighty’s throne in the heavenlies.
Our last rites for Sam Westra were different.
We buried him with his fathers in the church graveyard. First, we had a funeral—a worship service testifying to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then, we carried Sam out to his grave where I read the Prayer Book’s committal service:
In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succor,
but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?
Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour,
deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer;
but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.
Does the reader know this setting by Purcell of Cranmer’s last paragraph? This is the sobriety, weight, and fear of God missing from lives and deaths today. Christian churches are places of such lightness now, and nothing places such lightness on full display as our death rites we liltingly refer to as “celebrations of life.”
There at Sam’s graveside after a hymn, prayer, and benediction, the women walked back to the church-house to serve lunch while the children played in the graveyard and the men lowered Sam into his grave and buried him. Men, women, and children together putting Sam to rest next to his wife.
Because of that day, I’ve longed for a graveyard here at Trinity Reformed Church where we could lay our fathers, mothers, and wee ones to rest with their mothers and fathers, carrying their bodies from the funeral service in our sanctuary out to the grave where we commit their bodies to the earth and God Who made them, then walk back to the church for the lunch our mothers in Israel have set on the tables for us. The children run back and forth from the graveyard to the church-house. As we leave the grave, each of us grabs a handful of dirt and throws it on the coffin in our certain hope that this seed will rot, then from it will spring new life to be revealed at the resurrection which is presided over by our Risen Lord.
If we’re able, we bury the little ones miscarried by their mothers, too. We have several wee ones buried in the graveyard, and this past year we added three church officers, there—Elder Adam Spaetti and Deacons Joe Rice and Charlie Dugdale.
Now as we drive into our parking lot, right to our left on a hillside rest our children and our fathers.
We’ve not built ourselves any church-house to compete with Europe’s cathedrals. As all our Reformed fathers did before us, we worship in a simple church-house.
But our church-house is nestled up against our graveyard. There close by are the bodies of our mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters who, with us, await the sound of the trumpet of God when we shall be changed.