Finding Easter Joy in the Cemetery
If you’re like most people, you’re probably not fond of hanging around cemeteries. Cemeteries are creepy. They’re sad. They remind us of death. If we were to associate a holiday with cemeteries, Halloween would likely be the first to come to mind.
However, this hasn’t been the case for most of the history of the Christian church. Historically for Christians cemeteries were a place of great comfort, hope, and even joy. If you were to ask a Christian 1,600 years ago what holiday they would associate with a cemetery, they would probably say Easter!
Christians often gathered (and some still do today) in cemeteries during Holy Week to worship and celebrate the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. It was from a cemetery near the end of the fourth century that St. John Chrysostom preached a Good Friday homily in which he explains with great clarity and beauty the connection between cemeteries and Easter. Chrysostom writes:
"Why did our fathers command us to assemble here [in the cemetery] and not in another sanctuary? Because here lie the multitude of the dead. Since today Jesus descended to the dead, for this reason we gather here. For this reason also is this place called a "cemetery," in order that you might know that those who have completed [their life] and are lying here have not died but are sleeping and resting. For, before the coming of Christ, death was called "death". […]
Our end possessed these names before now. But since Christ came and died for the life of the world, death is no longer called "death” but “sleep" and “rest”. […]
See that everywhere [in the New Testament] death is called "sleep," and therefore this place is named "cemetery." For the name is pleasant to us and full of much learning. Therefore, whenever you bring a dead person here, do not smite yourself. For you bring him not to death but to sleep. This name suffices you for the consolation of misfortune. Learn where you are going. To the cemetery. And learn when you are going. After the death of Christ when the sinews of death have been cut. Thus both from this place and from this time you are able to reap the fruit of great consolation. […]
You have a sufficient medicine for faint heartedness: the name of this place. For this reason we assemble here."
Much of the beauty and comfort of Chrysostom’s sermon comes from the Greek word which we translate “cemetery.” In the Greek language “sleep” and “cemetery” come from the same word and sound similar. Thus the better name for “cemetery” really is “sleeping place”. Chrysostom explains that the places where Christians bury their dead are called “sleeping places” because of Good Friday and Easter. Christ’s victory over death on the cross completely removed eternal death from the experience of all those who look upon his sacrifice in faith. Therefore when Christians die they are not dead in the usual, final sense of the word. The bodies of these Christians are merely sleeping as they wait for their risen Lord to raise their bodies from the dead on the day of his return. And so their body is appropriately laid to rest in the cemetery, that is, the sleeping place.
Cemeteries, then, really are places of great comfort, hope, and joy. Cemeteries are Good Friday places and Easter places. As you consider ways to celebrate our Lord’s resurrection this Easter Sunday (besides going to church of course!), think about visiting a cemetery. Consider placing a cross and flowers at the graveside of a loved one. Place a cross to remind you of Christ’s victory over death and the grave. Place flowers to remind you that Christ’s resurrection and life is our resurrection and life, even for those whose bodies have been laid to rest at the cemetery. Remember and rejoice this Easter, and every time you enter a cemetery, that since Christ came and died for the life of the world death is no longer called death but is a mere sleep for all the baptized, redeemed, forgiven, soon-to-be resurrected co-heirs with Christ and his glorious resurrection.
 The English translation of this Greek sermon comes from an unpublished translation by Dr. James Bushur as well as a few of my own translation choices. The Greek text is found in J.-P. Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus (series Graeca) v. 49, (Paris: Migne, 1857-1866), 393-398.