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Janie B. Cheaney: Numbering our days


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: Numbering our days

What cemeteries can teach us about our time on Earth


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, October 26th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Well, it’s almost October 31st. And so in the days leading up to it you’re likely seeing lots of celebrations of death with plastic headstones and fake skeletons seemingly everywhere.

WORLD commentator Janie B. Cheaney ponders real cemeteries now, and how they can teach us to number our days.

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: Years ago, when we purchased our eight acres in the country at auction, trustees from the church cemetery across the street were standing by. Once the sale went through, they approached us with an offer to buy three acres for cemetery expansion. They promised we would have quiet neighbors.

We agreed to their terms, and I’m glad we did—less grass to mow. But another thing, too: almost as an afterthought, my husband asked for four cemetery plots as part of the deal. One for each member of our family. We were empty nesters with two young adults seeking their fortunes elsewhere—and one of them scoffed at the idea of being buried in the middle of nowhere. But who knows when their time might come, whether they be 27 or 72?

The cemetery has been my fitness track (five times around equals 2 miles) and our choice for an evening stroll. At dusk the gravestones are silhouetted against the sunset like watchful sentries. Or like the ten virgins of the parable, waiting for the call to attend the bridegroom. He’s coming! Get your lamps ready!

A few of these names we know, such as Mr. and Mrs. McCracken, who purchased their monument ahead of time with names and dates inscribed. Mr. McCracken is now under it, and I wonder what his wife thinks while contemplating her own name on that marker. I’ve wondered if we should pre-purchase our marker, though I can think of better uses for a few thousand dollars. No one will visit us here. We will be surrounded by strangers, most of whom lived at least to middle age. But there are children, too, even from this century. Their graves are decorated with toys appropriate to the age they would have been. No life comes with a guarantee.

After a certain age, memories are tinged with death, not just of loved ones, but of everyone who touched our earlier lives. I find myself recalling high school teachers, church mentors and pastors, committee chairmen—all very likely gone. Their babies are now grandparents. It’s a little shocking, as though all humanity were on a conveyor belt that will eventually drop into another state of being. And I’m drawing closer to the edge.

Death is both natural and unnatural, inevitable and astonishing. We seem immune until it comes for us. I’m glad we negotiated those cemetery plots years ago—as Moses wrote, it teaches me to number my days, that I may get a heart of wisdom. Each grave is a reminder to those who pause beside it, as the old Puritan headstones warned passers-by, “As I am now, so you must be.”

But over those watchful, waiting stones lies the shadow of history’s one empty grave: As He is, so we will be. I’ll wait for Him right here.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

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