When I was a kid, we lived a few blocks from the town cemetery – our Midwestern version of the burial ground next door to St. Saviour’s. On nice days, I would sometimes ride my bike over to the cemetery and stroll through the headstones (bikes weren’t allowed inside the gates), looking for the oldest dates I could find, wondering about the stories of people who had lived in the same town a hundred or more years before me. I remember feeling a sort of amazement that I could walk up and touch the grand obelisks and mausoleums with the names I recognized from the wealthy families of our town, as well as the tiny worn stones that might just say “mother” or “baby.” These stones seemed like links to an unimaginably remote past.
I also remember feeling a kind of awe at seeing a brand-new headstone or a freshly covered grave. Someone had really just died: someone’s father or sister, someone I might actually have known. I got a strange shiver from the idea that these were not relics of a historical character from the remote past, but someone just like me. The community of the dead is always open to new members.
Although we may forget to notice it on a weekly basis, the walls and windows and floor of St. Saviour’s church function as a similar community of the dead and a memento mori for the living. Some of the memorials are grand and expensive, testifying to the wealth and prestige of some of our forebears. Some are small and simple: a name on a small brass plaque, or even just a set of initials. Some recite the deeds and fine qualities of those they commemorate; some simply mark the bare fact that a person was here, that someone wanted to remember her. Some are from the remote past, well beyond living memory, while others are our contemporaries, the loss still fresh.
Most of us would like to think that we will be remembered. One of the cruelest Jewish curses is that one die and be forgotten, as though he never had been born. But what exactly do we hope that future generations will see and think when they see our name on a tarnished piece of brass? Surely there is more to it than vanity: we hope to be remembered in death as we want to be known and acknowledged in life. We hope that the graven stone that says “I was here” will somehow fix our memory to this place; will ensure that we remain parts of this community even beyond death.
But of course, it is not carved stone and embossed brass that marks our membership in the Body of Christ, but the living water of baptism through which we are adopted as children of God. Water will wear away the hardest stone, but baptism marks us as Christ’s own forever.
At our recent parish meeting, some expressed concern that most of our walls are full and that we need to make sure there is room to memorialize this generation for the ages to come. In the vestry meeting that followed we had a wide-ranging conversation about the intention and meaning of memorial plaques: Are they strictly for the purpose of recognizing donations to the church? What about those who have given their time and energy to the church for their whole lives? Who decides which gifts and which lives are worthy of a plaque?
The most important result to come out of that vestry discussion was the realization that we need to discuss these questions further and more broadly. Our parish bylaws (adopted July, 2002), make it clear that any plaques in the church are to recognize specific gifts given to the glory of God, not to memorialize individuals. The bylaws further make it clear that unrestricted gifts (other than part of a capital campaign) are not to be recognized by plaques.
I hope that we can have a conversation about memorials and gifts at our Annual Meeting on June 24. In the meantime, take a walk through St. Saviour’s – or if the weather is nice, stroll through the burial ground next door. Read the names, touch the stones. Remember.