THREE GLANCES AT THE CEMETERY
by Rev. John Evangelist Zollner, 1884
“Only the grave remaineth for me”–Job, 17: 1.
On this day, and during the Octave of All Souls, the faithful everywhere are accustomed to visit the graves. Many make even long journeys in order to adorn the graves of their parents, brothers and sisters, or other near friends and acquaintances, and to recite some pious prayers there. This custom of visiting the graves is very laudable and in every way appropriate, being very wholesome both for us and for the departed; for us, because the cemetery produces in us an earnest, holy disposition of mind, and causes us to make good resolutions to amend our life; for the departed, because the graves vividly remind us of our departed friends and fellow-Christians, and call upon us to pray for the repose of their souls. Since to visit the graves is of benefit both for you and the departed, I exhort you to cast,
I . One glance upon the graves,
II. One glance into the graves, and
III . One glance beyond the graves.
When we look around about us in a cemetery, we see graves of every description.
1. Such as have a Christian , and such as have not a Christian character. A Christian grave is known by the cross, which is placed upon it; for the cross is the Christian’s mark and sign. If you enter a house and notice in it the pictute of the Crucified, you judge the inmates to be Christians. If you see a man sign himself with the sign of the cross, you say within yourselves: This man is a Christian. You think and say the same when you see a grave with a cross upon it. Being Catholics, should we not place crosses upon the graves of our departed fellow-Christians and provide that our own grave, when we are dead, be adorned with a cross? By the crosses upon the graves we profess that we, and the departed, are Christians, that we highly esteem our holy faith, and that Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, is our only hope in life and death. Crosses upon the graves are also an admonition to us to follow Christ on the way of the cross, as He Himself says: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” — Matt. 16: 24.
2. Magnificent and plain. Some monuments and tombstones are richly carved and magnificently ornamented. I do not find fault, if the rich erect handsome and even costly monuments to the memory of their dear departed, but it should not be done from a motive of pride and vain ostentation, but only to honor them and to show them due love and gratitude. Extravagance, however, is not to be commended; the money would certainly be better expended, if given as an alms for the repose of the soul of the departed, or as a charitable endowment fund, than when expended in erecting a costly monument. After all, it matters little whether one has a more or less magnificent monument, provided he is happy in eternity. The Saints, even those who were of noble extraction, prohibited pompous funerals and magnificent mausoleums, and ordained that they themselves should be plainly buried and their grave adorned with nothing else than a cross. Be careful lest in the erection of monuments and tombstones to the memory of your dear departed friends you are governed by vain ostentation instead of Christian modesty. There are, however, graves which have no monuments at all, nothing is to be seen on them, and yet they have left children, friends and acquaintances behind, and have, perhaps, bequeathed them a rich inheritance. Such heirs act very ungratefully in not erecting to their benefactors even a plain tombstone, and when one day they appear before the judgment-seat of God He will certainly not commend them for their penuriousness. If we lead a pious life, do much good for the honor of God and the salvation of man, and bequeath a blessed memory to our posterity, we erect to ourselves a monument more enduring and more magnificant than any this world can give.
3. Adorned with flowers. To adorn the grave with flowers is a beautiful and laudable custom, which has also an appropriate signification. The flowers on the graves remind us of the words of pious Job: “Man born of a woman, living a short time, is filled with many miseries. Who cometh forth like a flower, and is destroyed, and fleeth like a shadow.”–Job, 14: 1, 3. Nothing is more frail than flowers. The majority bloom only a short time, some only a few days, or even only a few hours; they are also very sensitive, the least frost, cold air, even a few drops of rain, deprive them of their tender life. Is it otherwise with the life of man? May we not justly call ourselves men of to-day? Is not the most trifling thing often sufficient to destroy prematurely that life which is in itself fleeting. And yet many of us are so foolish as to be more solicitous for our frail, corruptible body than for our immortal soul.
Flowers are beautiful to the eye and spread a pleasant odor. Let us, then, when we see them on the graves, make the resolution to rejoice God and man by the sweet odor of a virtuous life, that we may be able to say with the Apostle: “We are unto God the good odor of Christ in them that are saved, and in them who perish.”–II. Cor . 2: 15. Placed on the graves of the dead, flowers also serve to mitigate the sad aspect of the grave and to cover death and decay as much as possible. So far it is well and good; but it is not right, Christian friend, if without necessity you bring to light the faults and sins of the dead, if you slander and detract them even in the grave, and deprive them of their good name. Such conduct is certainly very uncharitable and so much the more to be reprehended as the dead can not defend themselves and seek justice. Learn, then, from the flowers on the graves to keep silence regarding the faults of the dead, unless an exception be necessary, and remember the proverb, De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Speak only what is good of the dead.
If we cast a glance into the grave what do we see? We see:
1. What the dead man has in the grave. Alas! he has nothing but his winding-sheet and the coffin which contains his mouldering body. Though he may have been rich during life, though he may have had money by the millions, superb houses, immense possessions, and a lucrative business, he now possesses nothing of all these things; he must say with Job: “Only the grave remaineth for me.” The Caliph Hesham, who died at Baspha, in the year 742, possessed seven hundred boxes of gold pieces, and so large a quantity of clothes and silk garments, that to remove these goods from one place to another six hundred camels were required. He had scarcely closed his eyes in death, when his palace was plundered, and there was not left even a basin in which to wash his inanimate body, not a piece of linen in which to wrap it for the grave. How poor death made this rich ruler! Did it leave him anything but the grave? How foolishly, then, do Christians act, who fix all their thoughts and cares upon temporal goods and thereby forget God and the salvation of their souls; yea, who suffer themselves to be governed by avarice and covetousness to such an extent, that they hard-heartedly turn the poor and needy from their door, and in their business transactions commit many injustices. Or, is it not the greatest folly and blindness, to forfeit heaven for the sake of such vain, perishable goods of earth, and to incur eternal damnation. Consider this well, and entertain no inordinate love for money and the goods of this world, be solicitous for temporal goods only in so far as they are necessary for your subsistence in this life and never forget the words of the Lord: “What doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul.”–Matt 16: 26.
2. What the dead man becomes in the grave. What does he become? You all know. After a few days the body decomposes, becomes mouldly, black and grey spots appear, the skin bursts and a greyish liquid oozes forth, an intolerable stench fills the grave, and would, if it found an exit, infect the air, worms grow in the flesh, which is devoured by them, and which falls in pieces from the bones, the head is devoid of hair, flesh and skin; where the mouth, ears and eyes formerly were, now only ghastly hollows are seen; by degrees the flesh is destroyed, and nothing remains but a skeleton, which also crumbles into dust in the course of time, so that what remains of man is nothing but a handful of dust. Such will be our condition one day; our body will moulder in the grave and return to dust and ashes. And this frail, perishable body, which has such a miserable end, should you so vainly decorate, so proudly dress, so extravagantly nurse it, and pride yourself upon its beauty, gratify its lusts and abuse it by sin and vices? When St. Francis Borgia, duke of Gandia, saw the body of Isabella, who in life was considered the most beautiful of women, so hideous and so disfigured, that the mere sight of it terrified him, he exclaimed: “O Isabella, what is now become of those eyes, that were once so sparkling? Where is now the beauty and charm of that countenance, which we so lately beheld? Are you her gracious majesty, Donna Isabel? Are you my empress, my lady, my mistress?” Returning from the funeral, he locked himself in his chamber, and passed the whole night without sleep. Prostrate on the floor, shedding a torrent of tears, he said to himself: “What is it, my soul, that I seek in the world ? How long shall I pursue and grasp at shadows? My God, my God, grant that I may never serve a master whom death can snatch from me.” Shortly after he renounced all worldly honors and dignities, entered the Society of Jesus and became a great Saint. May a glance into the grave and upon the corpses decaying and mouldering therein induce you to resolve to lead a pious, penitential life, and especially to employ your body always as an instrument in the service of God, to mortify its sinful lusts and to permit nothing which is contrary to holy purity.
In the light of faith we behold beyond the grave three places: heaven, hell and purgatory. In one or the other of these three places are the souls of all that have departed this life.
1. Which souls are in heaven?
(a) First of all, the souls of those children who died in their baptismal innocence. Happy children! They little felt the throes of death, since in their tender age they did not know what it is to die, and when their souls were separated from their bodies, they hastened directly to heaven. Such graves of innocent children are numerous in every cemetery; the good God snatches them away in their baptismal innocence, in order to complete the number of the elect in heaven. Christian parents, you must, it is true, be solicitous for the health and life of your children, and conscientiously employ the means necessary for that end; this is your bounden duty; but if God, nevertheless, permits one or the other of your children to die, and if it should be your only one, you must not grieve immoderatly on that account, for your departed children are well taken care of, and you, with all your love, care and solicitude would assuredly not have been able to give them anything better than heaven.
(b) Those souls which, while on earth, or in purgatory, have rendered perfect satisfaction for all their sins. I hope and trust in God that in our cemetery there are many graves of such blessed ones. There always have been Christians in our congregation who led a pious life and served God with zeal. When they died, they had not much to atone for in purgatory, and now they are in heaven. To this class belong many fathers and mothers, who walked in the fear of God, maintained good discipline among their children and servants, and led them to good; many sons and daughters, who in the midst of a depraved and degenerate world preserved their innocence, and by their piety and good morals edified the whole congregation; then, such as fell again and again and grievously sinned, but truly repented, since they afterwards lived a penitent life and were zealous in doing good, and especially since they endured the sufferings and tribulations of life with patience, they died a happy death and after being detained in purgatory for a longer or shorter period, were admitted into heaven. We may venture to say that in our parish there is scarcely a family which has not Saints, either children or adults, in heaven. What an encourage- ment for us to employ diligently the present time which God in his mercy gives us. How is it possible for sinners, even the greatest, not to feel animated and encouraged in all earnestness on this day to em- brace a life of penance, in order to be reconciled with God and to be numbered among the holy penitents in heaven for all eternity.
2. Which souls are in hell? Alas! there are many that enter eternity in the state of sin, and faith teaches us, that all who die in mortal sin are lost forever. Shall I enumerate those unfortunates? They are those fathers and mothers who had but little religion themselves, who did not bring up their children in virtue and the fear of God, and who connived at their dissipations and bad conduct. They now suffer a double pain in hell, because they are chastised not only for their own sins, but also for the sins of their children, which they did not endeavor to prevent. They are those sons and daughters who spent the best years of their life in levity and forgetfulness of God, and hardened their heart against all salutary admonitions. They are those married and single drunkards, those cursers and blasphemers, jesters and buffoons, who by their unchaste discourses, songs and jests poisoned innocence; those avaricious souls who grudged everything to themselves and others; the unjust, who commited many injustices and made no restitution; the vindictive, who would not hear of reconciliation, and therefore lived and died in enmity; the lukewarm, who neglected prayer, heard no sermons, read no spiritual books, confessed only once a year, and even then not well, and lived only for the world; finally, all who did no penance for their sins, but only a mock penance. Reflect seriously to-day upon the condition of your own soul, whether you are on the road to heaven or hell. Should your conscience reproach you, that all is not well with you, let the graves of the damned be an earnest invitation to you for a speedy repentance and amendment of life.
3. Finally, what souls are in purgatory? The souls of the just who departed this life either in venial sin, or who have yet to make some satisfaction to the justice of God for those sins which have been forgiven. Nothing defiled can enter heaven. He who dies in venial sins, which have not been forgiven, goes to purgatory and must suffer there till he has atoned for them. St. Gregory of Nyssa says: “If any one has departed this life knowing the difference between good and evil, he cannot approach the Deity, until a purifying fire has extinguished the stains with which the soul is contaminated.” Those souls also go to purgatory, which have obtained the remission of their sins, but have not yet completely cancelled the temporal punishments. Such being the case, the number of Christians dying in advanced age, who will be translated into heaven without purgatory will be very small, because most of them at their death are either contaminated with venial sins, or have not fully satisfied for their temporal punishments. St. Catherine of Genoa says that only those who have to undergo, and do patiently endure, hard and lingering sufferings, can be admitted into heaven, to the vision of God, immediately after their death. Think then to-day of the souls of the faithful departed, detained in the prison of purgatory, descend in thought into those lower regions and consider what they are suffering, and do what you can in order to obtain for them eternal repose. Pray for them, have Masses offered for them, and apply to them the fruits of alms and other pious and good works. Christian love and gratitude should animate us to espouse zealously the cause of the poor souls in purgatory, since they are our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, many of whom have done us much good in body and soul.
In conclusion, I exhort you to visit the graves, not only to-day and during the Octave, but also on other occasions, especially on Sundays and holydays. All the graves you see remind you of the perishableness of all things earthly, the shortness of life, the certainty of death, and recall to you the words of holy Scripture: “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return”–Gen. 3: 19. Again, the graves call upon you to disengage your heart from all inordinate love of the world, to set the affairs of your conscience in order, and to be solicitous for the one thing necessary, the salvation of your soul. At the same time the graves admonish you to remember in charity the souls in purgatory and to beseech God, that He may console and refresh them in their sufferings, shorten the time of their punishment and conduct them into the dwelling of eternal repose. Thus the visits to the graves will prove both to you and to the suffering souls a blessing, and be to you and to them an excellent means for the obtaining of your eternal destiny. Amen.