I am writing this on a Sunday afternoon in Virginia as I sit in the local church yard, which is to say the cemetery of the church I attend, with about eighty other people. Friends and neighbors, fellow parishioners and strangers, we are scattered in small groups among the tombstones, some of which date back more than three centuries and others of which are less than three months old.
The day has been hot—it is August, after all—but a breeze is stirring, and we are in shade. Wonderful trees live here—among them, three large hollies, a honey locust, a gingko. I turn to Jacques and Elizabeth. “What’s that tree behind you?” I ask. They are retired marine biologists. They know aquatic animals and birds, but this particular tree stumps them. Maureen, who is sitting to my left, looks quizzical. “Why do you want to know that now?” she whispers. “I’m writing a blog,” I whisper back, realizing how random my tree question must have sounded. “If I put you in it, I’ll send you a copy.” My response seems to satisfy her.
What brings us together this afternoon is one in a series of Sunday concerts taking place here in July and August. Officially the offering is called the “Summer Concert Series,” but today Bill, who introduced the program, called it “Making Merry in the Cemetery.” He has also been known to refer to it as “Tunes among Tombs.” Both names are apt, for here we happily sit listening to music amid these monuments to the dearly departed. This summer’s acts have included a women’s A Cappella chorus, an old-time string band, a country rock group, and a father-daughter duo in which a talented father plays the keyboard for his gifted and vocally versatile daughter to cover the likes of Norah Jones, Tina Turner, and Tracy Chapman.
No vocals today. Instead, an acoustic guitar soloist is playing his own arrangements of music as diverse as the Beatles’ “All My Loving,” Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.” The sounds are lush and relaxing. Some people have brought wine and a picnic supper. Others have bottled water and snacks. I have tomato juice over ice, a handful of almonds, dog treats, and a bowl of water. My dog Joey lies quietly at my feet until another dog arrives. I get his attention with a treat. He laps up some water and settles back down.
People whose names are in history books are buried in this church yard. So are ordinary folks, including my high school classmate Dinah, my former next-door neighbor Betty, and another parishioner named Susan who died unexpectedly last summer. For years she arranged these concerts. Perhaps she even now listens, gratified that Leslie has picked up her mantle—although Leslie is not here today. Just before the concert began, she texted from California where she and her family are now driving to Tahoe. They can smell smoke from the wildfires.
Along with the music, the breeze, and the almonds, I try to take it all in. In this world that some days seems quite mad and that is literally on fire in some places, here is a moment of congenial peace. The phrase “communion of saints” comes to mind. Those who are no longer alive and those who are still on the journey, those who can relax for a while and those who fight fires and try to make the world better—we are all part of that communion. For that I am grateful.