Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What is a columbarium?

Grandma Schnekloth often visited the grave of her parents and aunts on Sunday afternoon, and brought my sister and I along for the ride. Sometimes we would pack a picnic lunch. We'd ride her (always pristine) Oldsmobile into town, cross some railroad tracks, then ascend the hill to the cemetery. We'd park along the edge of a path, get out, clean out old flowers, sweep the gravestones, put out new flags and wreaths, and then eat our picnic. My memory is fuzzy on some of the details, but I very much remember the vitality of that cemetery, the beauty of the view from the hill, the loving care and quiet.

Not once as a child did it ever occur to me that this was in any way a "morbid" activity. Also as a result, I've never felt scared in a cemetery. They don't spook me. Cemeteries feel warm, and loving. They remind me of my grandma, who is now buried in one. They offer space to commune with the memory of the dead. They are restful places.

Later, while serving in global missions with the ELCA in Slovakia, I had the honor of visiting cemeteries on All Saints Eve. The tradition in much of Eastern Europe for All Saints Eve and Day includes visiting the graves of loved ones to grace them with the light of votive candles. Often there is enough candle light that it lights the entire space as if it were dusk. It's an astounding sight, one you never forget. The light and the people form a community that transverses the earthly and celestial. I'm not sure how else to describe it.

Finally, when I served as pastor of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church, Cambridge, Wisconsin, I had the absolute joy to discover a cemetery that outstrips almost any other I have visited in beauty and grace. It's the first cemetery I've ever been in where I thought, "I would like to be buried here." I walked it often, in all seasons. I buried many beloved parishioners there.

I've given considerable thought to how I would prefer to be buried. If I get my choice, I'd like to be buried in a simple pine box. Some Benedictine monastic orders make them. They're simple and inexpensive. I'd like the mortician to use as little preservation techniques as permissible by the state in which I reside, so my body will return to the earth quickly. 

I used to keep a list of hymns I'd like sung at my funeral, and readings, but more recently I've thought I'd prefer that my family and friends pick those things themselves, so they can sing not what I want to express from the grave, but what they prayerfully hope and wish to sing. If you want to sing a song I like, feel free. I especially like the plainsong chant of the Nunc dimittis at the conclusion of compline. My kids know it. Ask them to sing it for you. "Now Lord you let your servant go in peace..."

All of this is a very long preamble to introducing the concept of a columbarium. This Sunday, our congregation will break ground for a columbarium garden that will be located right outside our sanctuary windows. If you've been in our church, you know the sanctuary is unusually "light" because both walls of the sanctuary are floor to ceiling clear windows. The columbarium, when completed, will be a memorial garden very visible out the east window of the sanctuary. 

What is a columbarium, you ask? columbarium is a place for the respectful and usually public storage of cinerary urns (i.e. urns holding a deceased’s cremated remains). In Northwest Arkansas, not to mention the rest of the country, the practice of cremation is on the rise. I'm not quite sure why this transition has been occurring. My best theory is that we are a much more mobile society than ever before, and it is increasingly less likely that people live and die near where their ancestors are buried. In such a case, it makes more sense to discover (and use) methods for burial that are less cost prohibitive, and perhaps even fit with the worship space of the congregation with which we are affiliated. Once the columbarium will be completed, people will have the opportunity to be committed on the same grounds where they worship.

The beauty of the columbarium is simple. It bring us as a worshipping community into close geographical proximity to those saints who have died in the faith and now rest in God. When we proclaim in the Eucharist, "together with all the saints, we praise your name and join their unending hymn," we will have, right there next to us, visible and concrete reminder of those saints we anticipate being gathered up together with into Christ.

I have given much thought to this, perhaps too much. I remember one description of cemeteries in Eastern Orthodox lands, where the parishioners are buried with their feet to the east, so that at the resurrection dawn they will rise to see the risen Christ. The priest, however, is in these cemeteries buried with his face to the west, so that at the resurrection he will rise to see the risen Christ reflected in the faces of his parishioners

I love this kind of mythologizing and mysticizing of the resurrection. It's powerful imagery. There's truth behind it. But I also think there is power in the mythos of, say, a "theologian" like Walt Whitman (see a short selection from his Leaves of Grass below), who imagined the grass growing on graves as emerging from the mouths of those buried, for it shows that out of death there are other kinds of life, and "to die is different from what anyone supposed." If we are formed from dust, and return to dust (as we often say at funerals), then indeed even if we are buried as bodies, we will soon turn to dust, return to dust, get mixed into the complexity of the creation which really is simply a mix of light and dust.

So dust, cremains, ashes, are as much a reminder and proper state for those who have died as is burial of bodies in the ground. Either way, God (and this is a mystery) joins us to the resurrection of Christ, and we trust in this. No one was in the tomb Easter morning to see precisely how God raised Christ from the dead, but it is a matter of Christian faith that when the disciples and women returned to the tomb that morning, there was no body. God makes life where there is dust, and forms humans (and new humanity) even from the dead and out of the grave.

All of this has become a surprisingly long meditation on the ground breaking for our columbarium this Sunday. You're welcome to join us--3:30 p.m. at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. We will take a shovel, the same shovel used to break ground for our church property 47 years ago, and we will turn over some dust to prepare a garden for the faithful committal of those who have returned to dust, and all because we believe we have a God who forms new things out of dust all the time, and will form us into a resurrection body in Christ as well.

A child said, What is the grass?

by Walt Whitman

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
 is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
 green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
 may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
 of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the 
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
 from offspring taken soon out of their mother's laps,
And here you are the mother's laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
 for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
 and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
 taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
 at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

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