I’ve been visiting a lot of churchyards over the past few days, and it occurs to me that, although they can create a somewhat morbid atmosphere — in a climate like England’s, one rich with literal dankness and decay — there is also real value in having cemeteries directly attached to places of worship: It makes the fundamental issues pretty stark, clear, obvious, and unavoidable.
Americans (and, to some extent, others in the West) have largely insulated themselves from death. People die in sterile hospitals rather than at home, and, on the whole, we don’t like to think about the fact that we ourselves will perish. Death is an accident, a failure of medicine, almost unnatural, perhaps an occasion for a law suit.
We Latter-day Saints, in particular, are an upbeat people, and that’s great. On the whole, I prefer it by a considerable distance to the opposite. But even the Kirtland Temple (probably following conventional mainstream Christian usage) has a cemetery directly adjacent to it.
I often hear dissidents from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and, for that matter, from other Christian denominations) explain that they renounced their faith because they judged it socially retrograde, or thought the services boring, or found their congregation hypocritical, or preferred Sunday golf, or whatever. (Granted, there are those who leave, or claim to leave, over doctrinal disagreements or because of flat disbelief. Those are a different matter.) One relative of mine explained that she simply wasn’t “religious.”
To me, though, the real issues are whether life and the universe have a purpose or are merely random accidents, and whether consciousness survives the grave. Whether one is “religious” or not seems to me irrelevant: My personal emotional response to the nature of the universe is of no great significance; the law of gravity holds whether I feel warm and fuzzy about it or I don’t. It’s my job to conform myself to the universe, not the other way around. And, if I don’t, I’m likely to be damaged, but the universe will continue just fine. Women’s ordination, dull sermons, flawed fellow worshipers, the back nine, poor music — these are, by comparison, secondary matters at best. And having to walk through a cemetery to reach the door of the church, I can well imagine, helps to remind parishioners of that fact. “Depend upon it, sir,” said Samuel Johnson to James Boswell, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
As the Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”