Life Lessons from A British Cemetery

Just for a minute, imagine walking down a cobblestone path that is older than the United States, hearing dainty British women speak about the unusually hot weather (only 75 degrees!), standing in a cathedral that stretches so high you have to crane your neck to take it all in, fish and chips, tea and scones every afternoon, and green – lush green everywhere – welcome to England!

For a Texan, the trip overseas this summer was a breathtaking experience. I was able to spend almost a month in the U.K. as part of Southwestern’s Oxford Study Program and in many ways, I came back a changed woman.

One of my favorite places we visited was a cemetery called Bunhill Fields. I know, it seems odd that a field full of tombstones would have been a favorite, but let me tell you, it was incredible!

Many “dissenters” of the Church of England are buried there: John Bunyan, Susanna Wesley, John Owen, Daniel Defoe, Isaac Watts, and many more. Dissenters were those who, at different periods, refused to conform to the Church of England. We might call them some religious rebels. After their death, they were placed in graves at Bunhill Fields on the East Side of London.

On the day my group visited, the field of tombstones was calm and quiet, filled with pigeons flying about and people reading on benches. There is a walkway through the middle on which people passed by the tombstones with an almost casual familiarity.

As a first-time visitor, I was mesmerized. First of all, I was in England! And secondly, I was surrounded by some of the most preeminent authors, leaders, and religious figures England has produced. I had stepped out of my nation, my life’s routine, and it felt like I had stepped back in time. Remembering the legacy of those who had died taught me more of how to live.

After reflecting upon my short time spent within the gated graves, I recall three things that I learned that day, things that are sticking with me.:

1.     Tombstones are more for the people living than for the person that lies beneath them.

What is said on one’s tombstone is essentially unknown to the subject of its words; the point of a tombstone is to memorialize what best described that person. However, it seems to me that the impact of those words is saved for those who might read those words—whether that’s person’s loved ones or a perfect stranger 300 years later.

Susanna Wesley, mother to the John and Charles Wesley, is one of the people buried at Bunhill Fields. Her sons were eminent in the latter years of the Reformation – John, the founder of Methodism, and Charles a great hymn writer.

Charles wrote the following epitaph for his mother, part of which is inscribed on her tombstone:

In sure and steadfast hope to rise,

And claim her mansion in the skies,

A Christian here her flesh laid down,

The cross exchanging for a crown.

True daughter of affliction, she,

Inured to pain and misery,

Mourn’d a long night of griefs and fears,

A legal night of seventy years.

The Father then revealed his Son;

Him in the broken bread made known;

She knew and felt her sins forgiven,

And found the earnest of her heaven.

Meet for the fellowship above,

She heard the call, “Arise, my love!”

“I come!” her dying looks replied,

And, lamb-like as her Lord, she died.

The message of her tombstone – that she was a devoted Christian and mother, speaks to the impact of one person’s faithfulness in the Kingdom. Although she lived a difficult life, copious records exist of her faithfulness to mother her children with excellence and to nourish those around her with sound biblical teaching even when it was lacking from the clergy. The words about Susanna’s life silently beckoned me to live with the devotion that she had so I can rise confidently when my Lord calls, “Arise, my love!”

2.  Secondly, life is short – so live it to the fullest

The beauty of the fields, although a bit morbid, is the reminder that one day all of us will lie in the grave–still, silent, alone. This fact is quite sobering. Thinking upon the lives of those in the grave challenged me to remember the brevity of life and that the days in which we live are evil (Eph. 5:15-17). Those who surrounded me were there because they dissented against the corruption and error they saw in the State’s Church. I had to ask whether I would stand as boldly as some of these in the face of ridicule, persecution, imprisonment.

The hope of the Christian beyond death is two-fold: First, on Resurrection day, we will be reunited with our bodies and transformed into something new, as we “see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2). Second, our lives speak past our existence on this earth–the choices we make, the words we speak, the truth we proclaim, the people we disciple, and our devotion to the Word of God will live on after we are gone.

How we spend our days, hours, and minutes matters, and there will be a day when we meet “the Great Equalizer.” Bunhill Fields was a poignant and much needed reminder to receive every day as a gift from the Father of Lights and to live it to the fullest!

Lastly, I learned that…

3.  Even in the toughest circumstances, we can live full and beautiful lives of faithfulness

Perhaps the most famous tombstone at Bunhill resides clearly in the middle of the field – John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. This work is the most printed book in the world, short of the Bible. What I didn’t realize the first time that I read it was that he wrote this during his 12-year imprisonment. The work for which he is best known was written during the most difficult time in his life, separated from his family, in chains for preaching the Word.

Bunyan is now memorialized in this graveyard for his life and works, and yet the facts of his life point everyone who walks by his tombstone to a greater reality – faithfulness to the Word and truth of God, no matter the consequences. Many of those who have given their lives for the gospel (whether in martyrdom or other consequences for obedience to Christ) will never be memorialized as Bunyan is. Yet his solemn tomb beckons all of us to trust the Lord in every circumstance, knowing that He brings beauty from ashes, and can carry the Pilgrim all throughout the progress of her sojourn on this earth.

Next time you visit a cemetery, I hope you will remember both the brevity of your life and the immense hope of your life as a believer in and follower of Jesus Christ.