Nothing focuses the mind on a Sunday morning quite like a slow drive past death. In that way, my father’s church is fortunate to have the old town cemetery sitting right across the street. As cemeteries go, it’s not the best I’ve seen. It’s nothing like the old Rosehill Cemetery in Macon, for instance, that rises above the Ocmulgee on high bluffs and keeps its Confederate dead cordoned off on a ridge with a particularly lovely view of the city stretched out below it. But, for our church, the one across the street does the trick nicely of supplying us all with a regular dose of mortality reckoning. Sometimes, during sermons, dad will make vague gestures with his right hand toward the cemetery across the street and speak of “them” or “that place.” When he does, we all know what he means.
Time was, most churches had a graveyard affixed to it that kept the worshippers in regular recollection of the way of all flesh. My dad, the one who waves toward some point on the other side of the north wall of the church when speaking of the dead or of the final resurrection, once drove his four sons to a church yard deep in the Appalachian foothills of Laurel County, Kentucky, that held the bodies of a dozen or so long dead ancestors whose blurry black and white photos fill my parents’ home. I wonder where my distant lineal descendants will go to see my grave. Maybe they’ll go to the place across the street from our church, if there’s any room left by the time I need it. Maybe they’ll have to go to a commercial memorial park where the preferences of the grievers are held subservient to those of the lawn mowers who roam daily and require, for their convenience, that the headstones be laid flat.
With these brooding thoughts in my head, I call Allen Dew, a man up in Granville County, who operates a website devoted to cataloguing the location and occupants of North Carolina cemeteries. I ask him about church cemeteries and he starts by telling me that, in North Carolina, anyone has a right to be buried on his or her own land. I’m a lawyer and I don’t know that. Mr. Dew and I congratulate each other for living in such an admirably unmeddlesome state such as ours and proceed to make a few uncharitable comments about what we figure the law to be in California.
Yeah, he says, but the practice of burying grandpa under the old willow tree wasn’t really sustainable. Even if it was the common way in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it hindered a family’s sense of mobility to leave the care of the family plot in the hands of strangers. The life of a farm, steady and long lasting though it seems by our standards, is simply too brief to bear the burden of keeping the dead. It came to be seen that the church was the only reliable, physical place on earth for this kind of work. After all, not even Sherman would raze a church. Mr. Dew says that the commercial memorial parks now do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to constructing new cemeteries. I think, but do not say aloud, that in our day it is corporations that are viewed as the great reliable constant of life. Heaven and earth may pass away, but Internment, LLC, will last, goes the thinking.
It’s strange that it should be so. We often hear of religion’s reduced sphere of influence in society (gone are the days when a Duke, Vanderbilt, Sewanee, or Emory boasted of its religious affiliations; gone are the days when the stores were closed on Sunday), but to speak of merely a reduced sphere of activity would suggest that the church now concerns itself with only its core functions: its preaching, its baptizing, its marrying, and its burying. But that doesn’t quite capture the modern Southern church, does it? The church hasn’t been reduced to its core so much as become curiously lopsided. It amputates an appendage here and grafts on a new one there. It stops building cemeteries and starts building soccer fields. Those whose primary use of the past is a club with which to beat the present will be quick to blame the weak-kneed, happy-clappy theology of the last fifty years for the absence of many church cemeteries being built these days, but I suspect, in the spirit of charity, that there are additional forces at work.
To determine what those forces might be (without employing history’s cudgel), let’s imagine, in the style of W.J. Cash’s classic study The Mind of the South, a hypothetical pastor, a paradigmatic “man in the center.”
Behold the man: smooth-cheeked, earnest, full of book-learning. Behold, too, his wife and young child. He has just graduated from seminary and, without the financial backing of a particular denomination, he has struck out on his own to start a church. The options available to this young man do not include purchasing an unused country church with a steeple, a cemetery, and a nice baptizing pond relatively free of snakes tucked around the bend. No, his options for a meeting place are: (1) his living room, (2) an elementary school cafeteria, or (3) the town recreation center.
Let us further imagine this man three years hence. He now has a healthy congregation one hundred and fifty strong and is ready to move into a proper building of their own. But who is his congregation? They are not stentorian, sober-minded parishioners with both eyes trained toward eternity. No, they are like him: young, interminable, and transient. Without land and without the expectation of death, what good is a cemetery to this pastor? Even more, what good is a cemetery perceived to be by his flock? Their most pressing need is cheap recreational activities for their children, not a regular reminder of death. It is for these reasons that our young pastor constructs a church building and a soccer field with a single construction loan. He’s not averse to putting a cemetery in the churchyard, it just never occurred to him.
One hopes that there is a solution, here, and some way of acknowledging the realities of the modern church’s untethered relationship to…well…everything, without giving up on its necessary relationship with the dear departed and the ultimate end of all things. When the mainline denominations abdicated their rule over historical orthodoxy in the second half of the twentieth century, good men like our hypothetical pastor filled the breach. What they had in certainty and zeal, they lacked in the trappings of the historical church: For them there was no land, no history, no gray hairs in the pews to lend their wisdom, no thought as to what preceded, and only a slim hope that what would proceed from their zeal would exist long enough to be handed down to their children.
The differences between the historical denominations and the upstarts of forty years ago have grown fewer, though. The old churches conduct contemporary style services to attract the young while the upstarts dust off the Book of Common Prayer to steal some of history’s riches. It’s now clear that many of the independent churches led by men like our hypothetical pastor will, indeed, survive. Their churches are big and they are entering, now, a third generation of congregants who don’t know how to spell “Paschal” or know what Maundy Thursday is. Though their ceremonial informality has now become thoroughly institutionalized, even within the old robe-wearing denominations, the passage of time will find them, at last, still needing to bury one another. Many of these churches now have land of their own and the security of years to suggest that they aren’t going anywhere. It’s time they started acting like it and put some headstones where the soccer goals sit.
As for the old denominations, some of them still have a knack for the long view. Just down the road from where he lives, out in Granville County off of state road 1704, Mr. Dew tells me there’s a new church there that staked out an acre or two for a cemetery right along with the staking out of the footers for the church building. It’s not one he’d be likely to attend, necessarily, since Mr. Dew says they’re one of those predestination churches, but they’re Baptist, nonetheless, and that at least is something. As far he knew, there was no great epidemic threatening the congregation or a great mass of terminally ill members. The church simply staked out a cemetery, because they were a country church, and when you’ve got land for it, you might as well.
It was well they did. A few years after the church built the cemetery, there was an industrial accident on the Duke University campus that killed a steamfitter named Rayford Cofer. It was the kind of accident that made its way into the morning-commute news report on the local NPR station for two or three days running. Death surprises us sometimes. It comes unlooked for and arrests us in the common ordinary moments of our day. But it didn’t surprise that church. They were looking for it and knew it was coming, though they didn’t know when, exactly. Mr. Cofer was the first one buried in the new church cemetery on state road 1704. Maybe their preparedness had something to do with them being one of those predestination churches. But about that, neither Mr. Dew nor I were qualified to speculate.