Every couple of months, I go for a walk around our church graveyard. I have called it a cemetery for the longest time, but it’s actually a graveyard. Graveyards are connected to a church. Cemeteries are not.
As I walk through the graveyard, I visit the graves of saints that have passed on since I have been pastor and I remember them. I’m encouraged by their graves to keep pressing forward in pastoral ministry.
I once spoke with a pastor who told me, “I don’t like church graveyards. That’s just a picture that you are a dying church.” I thought that was quite silly. A church graveyard often means that the church has lasted for decades and decades as saints have labored there to preach the Gospel and build up the body.
It’s sad that many new churches that are started do not get to have a graveyard. Most of the time, I get it. If you plant a church in downtown Boston, you can’t really have a graveyard attached to it. But, how much we lose when our church doesn’t have a graveyard.
Here are five reasons I think there is glory in a church having a graveyard attached to it.
#1 It reminds us of our own death as we enter worship
The fact is, we in America rarely think of our own mortality, especially if we are young. We kind of know in the back of our minds that we will die someday, but it’s still a long way off, right? Wrong. In our church graveyard, there are people of all ages. We have several babies buried in our graveyard that were only a few days old. We have kids buried there. We have people in our graveyard that were in their 40s and 50s when they died. Every person in the graveyard that died at old age were at one time my age. And now they are gone. And so will my life be. So every day when I see that graveyard, I am reminded I will die and that causes me to consider my life and value what is important. It causes me to make my life about the right things and not waste it.
#2 It gives you the church history in a physical way
Our church graveyard has tombstones in it of people born before the Civil War. There are tombstones you can’t even read anymore because they have weathered so much. It’s very easy to see where the graveyard began and how it has slowly spread out over the last 132 years. Our church also has a book recounting the history of the church from 1890 to 2003 when it was written. So I can easily go out and connect graves to names in that history book. It gives me a physical church history to have a graveyard.
#3 It fleshes out Hebrews 12:1-2
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” -Hebrews 12:1-2
Hebrews 11 is known as the hall of faith. It goes through the whole story of the Old Testament and shows how God worked through the faithfulness of His people. And it concludes with 12:1-2, implying that it’s not just the Old Testament saints, but also every saint. All the saints that have gone before us are cheering us on to continue running the race and not give up.
The church graveyard is that cloud of witnesses. There was a dear senior saint in our church that passed away in 2020 named Evelyn. Evelyn treated me like I had been her pastor her entire life, yet I was only her pastor for 14 months before she died. The Lord sovereignly planned it that Evelyn would be buried right in line with the window at my desk in my office. So any time I am in my office discouraged and wanting to give up, I see her grave out there and it’s like she’s telling me, “Keep going. Look to Jesus.”
The church graveyard is a cloud of witnesses telling those in Christ that are still living to keep going.
#4 It gives mourning people a chance to continue processing their grief in sight of the church
On a regular basis, I’m in my office and see people pull up and get out of their car to stand at the grave of their loved ones. It’s pretty common that people do this right after the death. And when they do, they are right in line with the church. They aren’t out in the city with no one around to turn to in the midst of their grief. There have been many times as pastor that I have seen them out there and walked out to say hello while they were mourning. I’ve often been met with a look of comfort that someone was there and saw them struggling.
#5 It is an epic preparation for the second coming of Jesus
On the day Jesus returns, the graves are gonna bust open. What a glorious sight it’s gonna be! The saved and the unsaved will both be raised, but in different ways. The saved will be caught up in the clouds with Jesus. A cemetery in the city might have various pockets of saved people come forth. But imagine a church graveyard where hopefully the majority of those buried there are saved. Imagine the sight it’s gonna be when the whole field erupts like a resurrection volcano!
Church graveyards are not a sign the church is dying. There is much glory in them.