By Deacon John De Gano
I had come ahead to the cemetery to give myself time to think. To reflect not only on the words of comfort I would share with the young parents of their five year old son I had baptized not so many years before, but also in remembrance of the premature death of my first ‘god-child-to-be’ (a scant matter of days and hours after birth in the hospital) some 40 years ago.
And as I walked about focused upon the beauty of this memorial park, the trees and grass, the breathtaking view of the mountains in the distance and the hill directly behind me I felt the rushing wind tugging on my stole as it buffeted everything in its path.
Just then, a lone Swallowtail butterfly came along – darting to and fro – as it struggled and, to my amazement, succeeded in making headway against what must have been a tremendous gale force wind (considering its size!).
I continued on, reading the names and inscriptions of many of those deceased and buried below my feet as I meandered back down to where the open grave awaited the arrival of its youthful owner.
Yet none of these things had more of an impact on me than did the high-pitched voice of a seven-year old girl who had found two younger playmates in the assembling crowd of mourners and well-wishers.
She was explaining to them that they could come to her house later and play any games they liked.
It was the sense of hope and joy in this child that caught my attention and I turned to watch as she announced to the others, “Do you want to play hide and seek? I’ll be it.” And she immediately began counting to one hundred as the other two began running this way and that looking for a place to hide in the grassy monument-free place where we were gathered. Hearing the others squealing with laughter, she opened her eyes and joined in on the fun and laughter, running about – to and fro -- much like the courageous butterfly mentioned earlier.
It wasn’t long, though, before one of the parents, the father of the boy, came over and directed his son to come stand beside him. He dutifully left his friends (still running and laughing) and joined his family but it was too much to ask of the child… In less than a couple of minutes he spun around and ran back to join his friends at play.
The mom of the younger girl received a similar response when she tried to rein her daughter in but once again joy could not be contained, even in the cemetery.
And maybe it should not be.
As Catholics we are taught that the grave is but a stop on our return to God. And we accompany our departed brothers and sisters who have been baptized as a display of our affection and as a sign of respect for their God-given human dignity.
We also know that we will make this trip one day ourselves and so we ritualize the burial as a way to express our hope in our merciful God and Father, whom St. John refers to in his letters with the definitive description, “God is love.” This same Father who did not spare his own son, but who, through our Lord, Jesus Christ, promised to take us to Himself for all eternity.
And it was Jesus, the Son of God, who, in chastising his own disciples for keeping the children at bay from him, declared that the kingdom of heaven belongs ‘to such as these (children).’
Perhaps in our grief and decorum we forget this all so important final point – to come before God as children, trusting, rejoicing in one another’s company and being open to receive the healing grace being bestowed upon all those present by the Holy Spirit rather than wallowing in grief or despair ‘like the pagans do.’
Through her actions this young homilist showed me the unconditional love she had received from her parents, and by her words she expressed their faith in welcoming, rejoicing and entertaining the other children present at the graveside.
And where better to preach this message of hope (the Good News!) than beside the open grave (and doorway to eternal life with God) of her younger brother.
John De Gano is a deacon at St. Catherine of Alexandria parish in Riverside.