It has always struck me as odd that some people find cemeteries to be uncomfortable places. I grew up mowing a cemetery – the same place for which my father remains the caretaker at age seventy-five.
This summer I visited two new cemeteries that I found especially meaningful. The first was the burial ground for the Roman Catholic religious order, the Society of the Divine Word (SVDs), in Techny (near Chicago). They are the largest missionary order in the Roman Catholic Church. I visited the grave of anthropologist Louis Luzbetak along with a colleague who visits his old friend each year as an expression of friendship across the vale. I had seen Professor Luzbetak just two times at the American Society of Missiology meetings before he passed away in 2005, a few months before I started teaching at Palmer. Now, he was resting peacefully next to fellow priests of the Society of the Divine Word.
The second cemetery I visited this summer was on the outskirts of Rome, one of several catacombs where thousands of early Christians were buried. Coincidentally, it was a site that brothers and priests in the Society of Divine Word have responsibility for running – at least to the extent that they were taking care of guiding around pilgrims like myself. Our guide mentioned in passing how a linguistic shift had occurred for the early Christians in the term they used to describe these burial places. Instead of using the pagan term “necropolis” which means “city of the dead” they used the Greek term “koimeterion” which means rather “sleeping place.” This term is the etymological forbear to the English word “cemetery.” Far from a mere romantic euphemism to mask the realities of death, the term koimeterion rather is packed with theological significance. Those interred in that place were now “sleeping” but nonetheless part of the church triumphant.
In my teaching about mission and Methodism as a historian I have, over the past several years, become heartily convinced of the truth of William Faulkner’s famous quip: “The past isn’t really dead. It isn’t even past.” Faulkner was writing about the ugly legacy of racism in America when he crafted those words. I think about this quotation in a more positive light. My learning about the etymological origins of “cemetery” amplified for me just how important the historian’s task is and how Faulkner’s quote might be altered to also say something about a Christian’s view of history: “The dead aren’t really past. They aren’t even dead.” I suppose I started to learn about this behind a lawnmower in the Mt. Hope cemetery in northeast Iowa. It is also what those early Christians sought to teach one another in changing the term from “necropolis” to “koimeterion.” This word change is a simple yet powerful expression of hope. Hope through history: I think that is at least one of the vital points I try to get across in my teaching. It is, I admit, more easily caught than taught in a culture of tweeting. But I try.