Graves And Grit

Michael Metzger

Enlightenment and entertainment.
An essential architectural feature is missing in most American churches. At one time it helped people become more purposeful – a quality sorely lacking in many Christians today.1 What’s the missing element? Is it fewer crosses, hymnals or the disappearance of pews? Nope. It’s the loss of graveyards.

Older churches were designed to remember the death of friends. We find headstones in churchyards, crypts in sanctuaries and plaques cemented on walls and embedded in floors. It was believed that graves give us grit, or determination. This is why cathedrals evoke a feeling of solemnity and sobriety. No gum chomping or sauntering in on Sunday after the third song. Remembering death rivets faith. This happened in Joshua’s day. We’ve forgotten today why family graves matter because the Enlightenment and entertainment removed them to remote cemeteries and the silver screen.

The story of graves and grit begins in Exodus 23:30, as the Jews prepare to take the Promised Land overflowing with milk and honey. Their determination however dissolved when the spies reported big guys in the land. “No way, God – we can’t do it.”2 Can’t often means won’t. So God informed them that “your corpses will fall in this wilderness, even all your numbered men from twenty years old and upward.”3 Thud. An 11-day homecoming stretched into 40 years of funerals. The next generation would do nothing but eat, sleep and bury their aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and parents.4 Day after day. Month after month. Year after year. “Dad, when do we go in to the Promised Land?” “After your mother and I die, son. You have to bury us first.”

Scratching out graves in the gravel makes people take God more seriously. For 40 years the Jews revisited family graves as they circled the Sinai. Graves reminded them of death. Death reminded them of time. Time reminded them of the Fall (“time” didn’t begin until after Adam and Eve blew it). The Fall reminded them that they were dealing with serious stuff.

The Book of Joshua begins: “After the death of Moses…” Moses was the last scheduled departure in the desert. The new generation was determined to live. They had grit in their teeth after burying friends and family. “Whatever you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Whoever rebels against your word and does not obey your words, whatever you may command them, will be put to death.”5

…will be put to death?

I don’t recall any of the Jews actually killing a disobedient colleague. It’s clear, however, they weren’t playing Tiddlywinks. Family graves give us grit. So where have all the graveyards gone? The exodus began with the influential Enlightenment thinker Thomas Hobbes who sought to distance death from our experience. The Enlightenment was about human potential – not human failing. Churches, like cities, unwittingly bought into Enlightenment assumptions. In 1900, the San Francisco board of supervisors passed an ordinance prohibiting burials within the city limits. By 1914 removal notices were sent to all burial sites, declaring them “a public nuisance and a menace and detriment to the health and welfare of city dwellers.”6 There are only a few remaining exceptions in San Francisco – along with fewer and fewer American churches with graveyards.

The exodus accelerated with the age of entertainment. It recast death as sensational rather than solemn. In the movies, “imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.”7 We watch people die to the smell of popcorn. The Israelites had to endure rotting corpses. Real death is grotesque yet can also be galvanizing. This becomes difficult when death goes from the Sinai to the silver screen.

John Duffy lost 67 of his colleagues at the firm of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks including his son Christopher. Burying his son “made me more decisive in terms of doing things,” said Duffy. “You have a different appreciation of time and how much time you have.”8 Time. Time reminds us of the Fall. The Fall reminds us that life is to be pursued with purpose and determination.

It’s no coincidence that Abraham’s first act in possessing part of the Promised Land was to purchase a burial place for his wife Sarah.9 A family grave was the first architectural feature. Should churches include family graveyards in their architecture? Facing personal death on a weekly basis can be sobering yet perhaps make us more purposeful.

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1 The University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research reports that while church attendance remains strong, “the United States occupies an unusual position: no other country is both as religious and permissive.” C.f. “Mapping America’s Values: How our cultural attitudes stack up against those of other countries,” State of the Union, Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2006, p.148
2 C.f. Numbers 13ff
3 Numbers 14:29
4 Deuternonomy 1:2ff
5 Joshua 1:16-18
6 For further reading, I recommend Joseph Bottum’s excellent article, “Death & Politics,” found in First Things (June/July 2007).
7 Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, translated from the French by Emma Craufurd, 1972), p.62
8 Shankar Vedantam, “Along With Grief, 9/11 Survivors Find Resolve,”
Washington Post, September 10, 2007, A3
9 Genesis 23:18ff

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