Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Holy Ground

Yesterday I drove the 25 or so miles up the Henry Hudson and Sprain Brook Parkways to Hawthorne, NY, to visit the graves of my father and my sister in Gate of Heaven Cemetery, the sprawling archdiocesan-owned cemetery in Westchester County, which is the final resting place of a good number of my relatives, as well as all sorts of other notables – most famously, perhaps, Yankee slugger Babe Ruth. At one point, a few years back, it was even hoped that Gate of Heaven might become a final resting place for the Paulists about to be removed from our former novitiate property in Oak Ridge, NJ. That would have been some modest consolation to compensate for the sadness of leaving Oak Ridge. But, alas, it was not to be! So, I will not be buried there but on the other side of the Hudson instead!

Cemeteries are important places in most human societies – above all certainly in any society that is at all seriously Christian. In many respects the early Christians conformed to and retained the funerary practices of their pagan neighbors, but the important fact that the early Christians conspicuously and decisively rejected the pagan practice of cremation in favor of the biblically based practice of burial in the ground made the acquisition and maintenance of cemeteries an important preoccupation of the Church from the earliest times.  And so it has remained. Gate of Heaven is one of several cemeteries under archdiocesan auspices in New York. And, back in Knoxville, my parish is the proud custodian of the oldest (and only) Catholic cemetery in the area.

The practice of setting cemeteries apart by ritual blessing is also ancient, dating at least as far back as St. Gregory of Tours (538/9-593/4). Apart from the Roman Catacombs and other places particularly associated with the burial of martyrs, maybe the best cemeteries in which to sense that special sacredness is the old-fashioned churchyard, where the graves surround the church building itself. I still fondly remember the village church in Siezenheim, Austria, a little town a short bus ride from Salzburg and a good walk from Schloss Klessheim (the estate where I lived and studied during my German-language summer program in 1970). The church was your typical modest-seeming, cupola-topped village church, with a beautiful baroque interior. To enter, one had to walk through the churchyard, where villagers regularly left flowers and lit lamps at the graves of relatives. The most monumental grave in the cemetery was that of Archduke Ludwig Viktor (1842-1919), youngest brother of the Hapsburg Emperors Kaiser Fanz Josef I of Austria and Maximilian I of Mexico. Because of his public homosexuality, Ludwig Viktor was more or less banned from Vienna by Franz Josef and eventually ended up living at Schloss Klessheim (previously the Prince-
Bishop of Salzburg’s summer palace). Ludwig Viktor had what we might call an archducal box seat in the upper reaches of the village church, but his mortal remains now await the final trumpet along with those of humbler villagers in the church’s graveyard. And, like the tomb of his eminent brother in Vienna, Ludwig Viktor’s grave is still well tended.

Gate of Heaven has no royalty in its graves (that I know of), but it is an especially attractive cemetery – a genuine campo santo (“holy ground”). Now that I am no longer in the area, my visits are necessarily much more rare than they might otherwise have been. Still it was good to get there today, for cemeteries are meant to be visited by the living, as much as they are resting places for the dead. Cemeteries are important because the people buried there are important – earthly remnants of lives lived by real persons who were loved and who have since stood before the awesome judgment seat of God, to which we will all sooner or later be called ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post - I had missed it and was paging back through the blog looking for something else and had to stop here.

    Having been born in the Bronx and then growing up in White Plains, Gate of Heaven was a frequent visiting spot for our family. It is such a peaceful place of repose for so many, and with so many other cemeteries around it.

    My grandparents, aunt and uncle are all in one area, near the Stations of the Cross, in an older section.

    My mother is up on a hill, looking over the grounds; it was nearly empty up there when we purchased her grave in 1991, but now it is quite full.

    I moved up to Albany when I got married 5 years ago, and am very happy here. That said, one thing I do miss is the ability to get in my car, buy a cone of flowers, and go to Gate of Heaven.

    Holy Ground indeed.