It seems for as long as humans have been able to contemplate the notion of an afterlife, we have felt the need to also honor and recognize the dead. After all, get to ruminating on the idea of some kind of hereafter and it’s only natural to start paying homage to those folks we believe have now entered it.
Prehistoric people, for example, were known to lay their dead deep into caves. Or, when caves were unavailable, to cover them with rocks in shallow graves to protect them from wild animals. Of course, over time simple gravestones also became another common way to honor and mark the location of the dead. Initially, sticks driven into the ground were typically used but eventually large fieldstones also became another frequently used method.
And perhaps not surprisingly, as fieldstones gave way to things like sandstone, granite, marble, and even materials like iron and bronze, it became common to also carve images and inscriptions into gravestones. And while even today many gravestones still just offer the traditional things like the deceased person’s name and the dates of birth and death, others have used gravestones as a way to offer words of advice for proper living and even warnings about the fragility of life.
One old gravestone for example reads as follows: “Remember me as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I, as I am now, so you will be, prepare for death and follow me.”
But out of the innumerable inscriptions that have been written in gravestones down through the centuries, one of my personal favorites, comes from a cemetery out in, of all places, Kansas. For the inscription is both funny and a statement of faith all at the same time. Yep, whoever came up with the inscription, I think, had a moment of pure ingenuity. For in just a few short words, the gravestone out in Kansas says it all with this insightful comment: “Thanks for stopping by. See you later.”
Well, the empty tomb on Easter Sunday all those years ago was just Jesus’ way of saying the same thing. “Thanks for stopping by. See you later.”
For in the end, the promise of Easter Sunday is that nothing can ultimately separate us from the love of God. Life can do it’s worse to us -- it can drag us down and tear us apart, it can make us sick and poor and it can even kill us -- but God’s love still overcomes. Look, when it comes to God the last and final word is never death but instead always life. Life spelled so large that it’s writ across the entire length of the universe like some gigantic, cosmic promissory note.
There’s a well-known story about Winston Churchill’s funeral, which I have always loved. Planning the service in advance of his passing, it included many of the great hymns of the church as well as the Anglican funeral liturgy.
At the conclusion of the service, and at Churchill’s request, a bugler positioned high in the dome of the Cathedral played "Taps," that well known military tune used at dusk to signify that each day is over and that it’s time to turn off the lights.
But as soon as the first bugler finished playing "Taps," a second one, per Churchill’s instructions, began playing the notes of "Reveille," which, likewise, is that other well-known military tune played each morning to roust sleepy soldiers form their beds. Some of the unofficial lyrics for "Reveille," by the way, include the words, “You’ve got to get up. You’ve got to get up. You’ve got to get up this morning.”
The whole thing, of course, was Churchill’s way of declaring that even the worst things in life never have the final word, for the final word always belongs to God, and that word is life.
Of course, amidst the proclamation of such a grand promise, it’s important that we not make light of death. For while life might always be the final word when it comes to God, there’s also no denying that death is something very real that awaits us all.
Truth be told, because of God’s promise of new life, it can be easy, understandably so, for us to gloss over death as if it’s just some minor detour in life. But that’s hardly the case, is it? Nope. Unlike Mark Twain, who after reading his own obituary in a newspaper was able to glibly say, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” we don’t get to do that, do we?
After all, the Christian tradition is one that regularly asks people to declare, among other things, a belief in resurrection. So if there’s one thing the Christian tradition is frank about, it’s the reality that death is something very real and, yes, even unavoidable.
And yet despite such an honest assessment, there is also the promise that even death cannot stop God’s love. And so it goes, my friends. While death is certainly very concrete, as people of faith we also live with the great promise of resurrection. Or as that gravestone out in Kansas likes to put it, “Thanks for stopping by. See you later.”
The Rev. Stephen Yates is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Destin.