The Troubled Peace of the Cemetery

Peace is not the product of terror or fear.

Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.

Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.

Peace is the generous,

tranquil contribution of all

to the good of all.

Peace is dynamism.

Peace is generosity.

It is right and it is duty.

-Oscar Romero

What is it about cemeteries that folks find so peaceful?  As I have approached the annual observance of Memorial Day, my mind has been drawn to the ways in which our culture so often equates silence with peace.  And there is nothing that seems more quiet or peaceful than a big, sprawling cemetery.

Mount_Auburn_Cemetery_2.JPGWhen I was in seminary in Cambridge, my friends would often walk down Mt. Auburn to the cemetery.  Heck, I even went on a first date there (surprisingly, a walk in a cemetery is a great way to get to know someone).  We treated that cemetery like a park, and indeed it was one of the few substantial, wooded, secluded areas where one could go to enjoy the sensation of escaping from the sound and fury of graduate school.

There amongst the flora and fauna, it was easy to believe that this place was more than just a cemetery.  And indeed, those who care for it claim it as far more than a resting place for the dead.  According to their website, “a National Historic Landmark, a botanical garden, an outdoor museum of art and architecture, and an important habitat for urban wildlife.” Gravestones are no longer simply markers for the dead–they are works of art.  The people who are interred there? Stories that connect us to our rich and varied past.

And certainly, this cemetery (and many others as well) is incredibly beautiful and peaceful.  It is easy to imagine that those who grieved their loved ones sought it out for the rest that they believed it would grant their dearly departed.

But I would venture to offer that there is far more going on in the cemetery than perhaps we like to admit.  Too often, what makes a cemetery seem peaceful is the absence of, well, people.  To forget that one is surrounded not only by nature, but by the souls of the dead.  And that not all of these souls went quietly into the night.

arlington-875457_960_720.jpgFor me, this disquieting fact rings most true in military cemeteries.  For there is little I can think of that is as sobering as Arlington Cemetery’s 634 acres of nearly identical tombstones marking the final resting places of over 300,000 fallen soldiers.  Or the knowledge that the fields at Gettysburg are drenched in the century-old blood of 10,000 men.  These places are not peaceful to me.  For me, they call to mind the peacelessness of silent cemeteries which Oscar Romero recalled when he spoke of our Christian duty to seek the Kingdom of God, over and against the violence of this world.

Timothy_H._O'Sullivan_-_Field_Where_General_Reynolds_Fell,_Gettysburg.jpg
The field at Gettysburg

For me, to stand at a memorial, or walk through a military cemetery, is to remember the cost of human conflict. To remember that this is what the world promises.  This is the only guarantee of military aggression–more white crosses dotting a hill.  More dead children mourned as a flag is folded.  We can give thanks for their love of country, for their obedience to the uniform, for their desire to make the world better through service to their country.  But we cannot mistake the stillness of their bodies and the quiet of the grave for anything close to peace or tranquility. Theirs is a silent and unending cry, which shouts to we who would stop and see: “THIS is the cost of war.”

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