“Your communities will never really accept you until they see how you treat their dead.” These were the words of Rev. Dr. Shelley Finson. She peered at us over her glasses, pencil stuffed snuggly in her ponytail. She reached for it and tapped the eraser end on the desk beside me whose occupant was sleepily contemplating the ceiling tiles. The class paused for a minute while my fellow student’s eyes quickly engaged hers. She continued. “The people you serve will watch how you wait with them as their loved one dies. They will listen to your words, not for content but for compassion. Then, at the most vulnerable, difficult moments of their lives, they will observe what you do with those words at the funeral when, along with them, you remember the significance of a life. Afterward, the people will wait to see if you stop to take time to mention the person’s name in their presence. Until you take care with these things, you will never be ‘in.’ How you take care of a community’s dead says a lot about who you are. How do you care for the dead?” My peers chimed in with their wisdom.
I remember being somewhat skeptical twenty years ago sitting in the midst of my Pastoral Studies class at the Atlantic School of Theology. Surely, after so many hours spent absorbing history, theology, social analysis, experiential learning and so on, success in a community cannot possibly come down to the death response? When I got out of school and was thrown into the midst of living with people amongst their grief and joy-stoked lives, I learned that Shelley was absolutely correct, as usual.
I would add my own corollary to Shelley’s wisdom. How the living in a community treat their dead says a great deal about how they live. I have observed that unkempt or hazardously managed cemeteries usually indicate a community in some kind of trouble. Either they have lost community capacity for building social structures or there is such dysfunction that they cannot come together to care for their dead. Well-kept cemeteries, particularly if they are volunteer-run, indicate the opposite. It takes a community of some spiritual capacity to come together to figure out and implement a vision as to how the resting place of their loved ones will look and function.
When we took the 132 south from Mont Joli you would come around bends or be in the midst of hollows and a small community would just suddenly pop up. Occasionally you would see nicely kept cemeteries. Sayabec is the tiniest of villages and yet it had a lovely community sign surrounded by a robustly gardened area. Its cemetery was stunning. A stone chapel, constructed of local, unique, beautiful stone greets you as you pull into a level parking lot. The most astonishing aspect of the cemetery is the 14 stone cairns enfolding it. On each is a depiction of stations of the cross, (the story of Jesus’ crucifixion). Near the station which depicts, I think, the time a man is voluntold to carry Jesus’ cross, a man’s family took time to erect a small display with his picture and some biographical material next to his grave marker. Not for the first time, I cursed the limits of my primitive high school French. I wondered that a family or community felt a need to highlight this man’s life. In the centre of the graveyard is the corpus (the body of Jesus on the cross) with Mary and another standing vigil. The unusual volcanic rock of the area supports both of them. The whole has the effect of declaring to the visitor, “This is our impervious, irregular, beautiful faith-rock. It is us. Pain abounds, but resilient love matters most.” I wonder about a community who take such care with their dead.
Postscript: Dr. Pat De Meo volunteered to translate the words on the plaque. We both agreed they were lovelier than we could have imagined.