THE footfall through many of our churchyards is high, and yet often we engage with these families only over questions of plastic flowers and inappropriate grave management, as we tread the fine line between upholding churchyard regulations and responding to pastoral need. As with weddings, baptisms, and funerals, however, there is a great opportunity to engage pastorally and as part of the mission of our churches with visitors to our churchyards.
The churches of the benefice where I serve all have churchyards that are open for burials and interment of ashes, and are well loved and visited by members of the community, as well as families from further away. Several times a week, I meet people in the churchyard who have come with flowers (or wreaths, or windmills . . .) to visit a grave and, in their words, “have a chat”. Often, these are people whom I have not met before, but who are open and thankful for the opportunity to tell me about their bereavement. I have heard some sad stories, and in those few minutes I hope I have been able to tend some open wounds.
IT WAS these encounters and observations that led me to plan, in 2017, our first “Service in the Churchyard”. Deliberately, the people I invited to help me plan it were not regular members of the congregation.
We discussed the basic principles of an event:
- It would be entirely outside. The people we hoped would engage with this were those who are familiar with the churchyard, and yet might feel no connection with the interior of the church building. So it would be in the summer, and we’d hope for a dry day.
- It would be very simple, and not at all wordy or “churchy”. Any readings or prayers would be gentle, and — we hoped — familiar.
- It would need to embrace the whole churchyard; so we would walk around, to enable every person to be at some close to the grave of his or her loved one.
- It would be short (25 minutes or so), and end with a cream tea — also outside.
OUR next consideration was how to advertise, as the whole point was to reach people we didn’t necessarily know. We were careful in our wording, and our advertising described the event: outside, short, simple, prayers, tea. . . We put it in our traditional parish magazine, and I distributed flyers at the lunch clubs and social gatherings I engage with around the village. But we also put up laminated posters on stakes around the churchyard for more than a month beforehand, hoping that those who come regularly would see them.
It was planned for a Sunday afternoon. The July weather was dodgy, but as we waited outside with umbrellas, about 35 people arrived — many in family groups, and only a handful being regular church members. We started with a hymn, “Morning has broken”, with a CD player on a lead out of the vestry (none of this was high tech!); and then went in turn to the four corners of the churchyard. A few chairs were strategically placed for those who might need them.
At each “station”, there was a reading (Psalm 23, Psalm 121, John 14. . .), followed by a time of quiet, in which we encouraged people to look around the churchyard from where they stood, to hold their memories, and to be aware of God’s love. We then walked on slowly — some chatted, some went in silence — and, as we passed the graves, some people placed flowers. As they did so, others instinctively paused in respect.
At the last station we led some prayers, said the Lord’s Prayer together, and — at the suggestion of a friend from the Roman Catholic church — exchanged the Peace. I was doubtful about this, but it proved to be a powerful moment, as people who had never met before greeted each other in the knowledge that they all had this special place in common, and all were holding loss and love in their hearts.
One elderly lady, attending with her daughters, in memory of her husband who had died many years before, said over her final scone, “This has been beautiful. I can’t thank you enough.”
Another woman came on her own from several miles away, having been invited by a member of our community. Thirty years ago, her sister had been murdered. She said that she could rarely visit the grave, as she found it too distressing, but came to this event, as she knew that she would have the support and prayers of others.
WE HELD the service again the following year, this time in two churchyards of the benefice. The attendance was higher than the first year, as new people had heard of it, and people who had come the first year had invited others. In the different setting of the second, more rural, churchyard, the service assumed its own character, but its essence was the same. After just two years, it has become “something we always do” in this benefice.
For those who visit, the churchyard is not a place defined by regulations, but a place to find a spiritual connection with those they have loved. It is where, in their own way, they seek and experience the presence of God. Holding this annual service has been a joy, knowing that we are joining with these people in their connection with the churchyard, and sharing briefly in their stories. It is an opportunity for us to do what we are best at as a church: sharing the love of God, and reaching out in love and pastoral support.
Perhaps the greatest joy — and, I believe, reflection of the Kingdom — is the sense of community which the service creates. Visiting a grave can be a lonely experience, but the gathering at this service enables people to know that in this special place they do not only connect with those who have died, but that they are part of a living community, with others who also know the pain of love and loss.
Canon Helen Sammon is Vicar of the Highnam Benefice in the diocese of Gloucester.
To think about:
- Do you have any idea how many people visit your churchyard? (Count the new wreaths at Christmas)
- In what way could your worshipping community connect more deeply with the people who visit?
- What might “a service in the churchyard” look like in your space and surroundings?
- Would walking around (as we did) work for you, or would it be better to gather in one place? How can you enable each person present to feel that the service is personal for them, and for the loved one they are remembering in that place?
- How can you create a sense of community among those who visit the graves?
- How might holding an event like this change our attitude to our churchyards, and help us to see them as an opportunity for relationship and mission?