I live across the street from a graveyard. I realize that would not appeal to some people. But having lived across from Woodlawn Cemetery in Pepperell, Massachusetts, for four years, I have to admit that I am a fan. There are of course the obvious benefits (quiet neighbors, no plans to build a convenience store across from my house, plenty of green space). But there are some other less obvious ones. I'll share four such advantages.
1. Our graveyard is bursting with life.
For a place that's supposed to be inhabited mainly by dead people, our graveyard is surprisingly full of the living. People regularly walk their dogs or do laps for exercise. Relatives and friends come to tend the graves, plant flowers, pull weeds, and tidy up. While they work, they play music on their car radios with the doors open. Neighbors greet each other. Kids learn to ride bikes. The groundskeeper rides his big mower.
In short, it's a social spot. We've taken our place in this little membership, enjoying good conversations, exchanging pleasantries, meeting people for the first time or deepening friendships. Living right across the street as we do, we see folks coming and going and say hello to people we'd never otherwise see. Perhaps God will be pleased one day to bring new life through these conversations in a place associated with death.
2. Our graveyard teaches our children about life and death.
We regularly take walks in the graveyard with our two little children. We read out loud the names on the gravestones and point out the years of birth and death. Sometimes when our kids are in the house and wanting fresh air, they ask to visit Levi, the long-dead inhabitant of one of the particularly impressive monuments. They're learning to act respectfully in the graveyard---no pulling flowers or hopping up and down on grave markers.
More importantly, they're learning from early on about the reality of death. You can't live across from a graveyard and not have some conversations with your 4-year-old about why all these stone slabs are stuck here in the ground. Death is a reality he's beginning to comprehend. And we're also teaching him about the reality of resurrection life after death.
3. Our graveyard reminds me of my own mortality.
By now, some of the gravestones are familiar. Here's the woman I buried a few years back in a small graveside service with family and friends. Here's the young son of a family in my church. Here's the mother of my neighbor. And here's the much-beloved Pepperell fireman for whom the bagpipes played. Our neighbors two doors down walk in the graveyard almost every morning. They walk right past their own gravestone, upon which has already been carved their names and birthdates. Only the date after the dash remains to be etched when they make the short trip across the road for the last time.
These connections between the living and dead remind me of my mortality and of the brevity and fragility of life. I'm reminded in the graveyard that death takes 100 percent of us. I will wake one morning, and that day will be my last day in this life. Jonathan Edwards resolved to "think much on all occasions" of his own death. Living within view of a graveyard helps me do that, and I consider this a great gift (Ecclesiastes 7.2).
4. Our graveyard reminds me of Jesus' sovereignty.
The graveyard is my favorite place to wander and pray. It orients me toward the great last day and the future realities I forget all too easily. I'll sit there looking out over the gravestones and recall Jesus' words in John 5: "an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [my] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment."
Each of the hundreds of people buried in Woodlawn was laid in the ground with great care in a grave dug with great effort (at least before backhoes began doing the work). They were buried over the course of many years. But every one of them will come out of the ground together, at once, in response to Jesus' voice. What a powerful voice! When they rise, Jesus will decide their final destiny---eternal life or eternal judgment. What sovereign authority!
The future life of these buried will be (and already is) unspeakably glorious or unspeakably horrible. This knowledge impresses upon me the urgent importance of speaking gospel words while time remains for repentance and faith. I have wept and pled with God for my living neighbors among my dead ones.
Living across from a graveyard isn't for everyone, but I'm thankful to God for it. It points me again and again to the life-giving Lord.
Stephen Witmer (PhD, University of Cambridge) is pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Massachusetts and teaches at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. This article is an excerpt from his new book Eternity Changes Everything: How to Live Now in the Light of Your Future (The Good Book Company, 2014). Follow Stephen on Twitter: @stephenwitmer1.