Project Canterbury


"The Sacredness of the Grave"





Church of the Ascension, New York










Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008


REV. AND DEAR SIR:--The undersigned respectfully request that you will furnish them for publication, a copy of the Sermon preached by you last evening in "Calvary Church," on the "Sacredness of the Grave."

The more than usual interest the subject possesses at this time, the able and eloquent manner in which it was treated by you, and the earnest desire of many Members of our Church and community, call for a more general circulation of this Sermon than the pulpit affords.

Very Respectfully Yours,


New-York, April 25th, 1854.


The Sermon, a copy of which you have requested for publication, was written with the simple purpose of contributing to preserve, within my appropriate sphere, that ancient healthy tone of public opinion, which has refused to violate the grave. If there is the least prospect that the Sermon will be useful in a more extended sphere, I place it at your command. Surely the attention of a Christian community needs only to be awakened, in order to insure the moving of public sentiment in the right direction. Believing that our instinctive feelings of the sacredness of the grave, only interprets God's will on the subject, and that the Divinely ordered securing of inviolated rest to our Saviour's body in the tomb, until the morning of his resurrection, is the example which a Christian people ought to follow in the treatment of its dead, I humbly invoke the blessing of Almighty God, on this effort to proclaim this truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

With great respect,
I am yours,


Grant, O Lord, that as we are baptized into the death of thy blessed Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
so by continual mortifying our corrupt affections, we may be buried with him; and that through
the grave and gate of death we may pass to our joyful resurrection, for his merits, who died, and
was buried, and rose again for us, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

2nd SAMUEL xix, 37.

Let thy servant, I pray thee, * * * die in mine own city, and be buried
by the grave of my father and of my mother.

There is something exquisitely touching in the aged Barzillai's request. There is a heart in which the sympathies of our nature are still as active as they were eighty years ago. The frost of time has not chilled them. A long experience of the world's heartlessness and selfishness has not driven out his affections, nor starved them upon objects which would not reciprocate and could not satisfy; but has sent them back to the safe sanctuary of his own breast, and fed them there upon sweet memories of by-gone days. The old man is no longer living in the present; but in the past. Remembrances, not hopes, now furnish his pleasure. And those remembrances cling to his own city, and cluster about the grave of his father and his mother. How many kindly recollections of his childhood and his youth, associations and associates of early years, come crowding on his memory. We see the genial good fellowship which appreciates its neighbors and its friends. He does not mean to lose the comfort which his soul takes in his gray-haired companions. He will not exchange the experiences of Rogelim for all the promises of Jerusalem. And there, near his own city, is the burial place of his ancestors. The very dust is kindred to him. The better portion of his natural affection has already found its home in that graveyard; and the rest must be buried there. How strangely the soul leaps over later ties, and clings to the re-invigorated forms of those first born affections which never die. He will not be buried with a present generation, who have their own objects of attachment; but with a past whose love he has tested. "Let me be buried by the grave of my father and of my mother." Do we not see the happy [5/6] influence which that village grave-yard had exerted over his mind? It was not a strange place to him. We see him often walking thither to offer the tribute of sincere grief and lasting affection; and to watch with tender regard the sacred mounds which covered dust so honored and beloved. Nor could all the artificial enjoyments of a metropolis, nor even the invitation of a king tempt him to leave the spot over which his heart had spread its tendrils, or to endanger his right to mingle his dust with that of kindred dead.

In all this there is something in the highest degree natural. It suits our impulses. We feel that nothing artificial has mingled with Barzillai's emotions. He may not be a philosopher; but he is a man. He may be entirely too much under the influence of antiquated superstitions and traditions. He may not be able to give any very sufficient reasons for his sentiments to those who must needs always have a reason even for the axioms of the heart. But we feel instinctively led to believe that Barzillai is in the right. His emotion touches a chord in our own souls; and as it vibrates with its wild melancholy music, plaintive memories of the dead come stealing back upon our minds, and link the purest strains of present thought with the harmonies of the buried past.

What is the origin of this natural sentiment?
On what is it founded?
By what is it sustained? and
What is its value?

Such are the questions which arise as we ponder this expression of the aged Gileadite: and to them we devote our attention.

A natural sentiment is never without a basis. As it is instructive, there is evidently a true common source from which it springs in all unartificial minds. That source is--first, our affection for our own bodies. It may be very philosophical to talk about the hostility between the body and the soul; and to anticipate a future when the mind shall be allowed, without corporeal shackles, to wander amidst the realms of thought and spiritual realities. It is certainly very poetical. It is a fine dream that this body is but a clog which the wearied soul carries about with it; drags after it in its toilsome marches through a world of thought; or, that this imprisoned spirit chafes within its fleshly walls, beating itself almost to death against the bars which separate it from the free air, running from one [6/7] avenue to another in hopes of escape, and praying always for an hour of deliverance from this tyranny, when it may be permitted to roam in a perfectly spiritualized universe. But there seems no reason that those who have so contemptuous an opinion of the body should treat it so well, and take such exquisitely tender care of it. The fact is, it is an affectation to despise the body. The Apostle tells the truth in his illustration, when he says, "no man ever yet hated his own flesh". It is a faithful servant of the soul. It does its duty well. And its failures may generally, if not unvariably, be traced to some error on the soul's part: some wasting of its energies, some mal-direction of its powers, some forcing of its strength beyond due bounds, some sin of the soul for which the body suffers. And therefore all men have an affection for the body. Even in cases where it has not been originally perfectly formed, or when it meets with misfortune, or sinks under the power of disease, we love it for the small services it renders, and perhaps the more because it is unfortunate. Such is the sympathy between our constituents that the distresses of the body become sorrows of the mind; and we feel none the less attached to this mortal companion because it is afflicted.

And yet there is another obvious source of this affection. The body is our companion for life. None so intimate; none so thoroughly conversant with our thoughts, feelings and habits; none which has gone with us into so many scenes of joy and grief. What has the soul done on this earth, but through the body? What effort has the soul ever put forth in this world, but that the body was its ready, efficient, and effective minister? What has the soul to answer for, either before the tribunal of its own conscience, or before the bar of God, but that in it the body was its partner? It is sheer affectation to slight the body. And in fact men feel it to be so even when their philosophy would make them hypocrites. We have an instinctive desire for the repose of our bodies after death. Every one has a choice on this subject. We would not willingly anticipate that our dust shall become an article of commerce, or our bones the sport of thoughtless boys upon a college green. A seaman may prefer that the bosom of the deep sea should open to receive his remains; and perhaps fancies that he shall sleep more sweetly if he can lie in the ocean's caves whilst the free winds sing his requiem. It is probable that he will sleep more securely, where no hand, but the hand of [7/8] God, can touch his dust. We prefer to lie down on the lap of that earth which has nourished us--if we may only be sure that neither public convenience, nor private interest, nor the recklessness of an age that shall have forgotten us, will turn us from our couch to make room for its utilitarian schemes. We all have some choice upon this subject; and if a preference, then a desire. We feel too much respect and regard for our bodies willingly to suffer them to be despised and trifled with, even after we shall have laid them aside.

This sentiment of affection for the body is even more strongly developed in reference to others, than in respect to ourselves. We may possibly reason ourselves into a sort of stoicism, or at least an apathetic indifference as to what may become of our dust. Perhaps,--who knows the gigantic ability of well schooled indifferentism,--we may affect to be rather better pleased that our dust shall become of future use, and contribute its modicum to the wealth and greatness, or the nourishment of a coming age--which will not thank us even for that. But we cannot reason ourselves into such placid anticipations concerning the remains of those who are dear to us. Will a mother look on complacently while rude hands lift with too little tenderness even the coffin of her babe? How much less will her heart abide the thought that at any distant day a stranger's hand shall fling its body from the pillow which her gentleness made so smooth for it, or count the dust of her darling as only so much garden mould. It may be very dignified for a philosopher to pronounce such feelings mere sentiment, and suited only for the weaker sex. But let him bring the case to the door of his own heart. Let it be the ashes of the one around whom all the affections he has ever known clustered with intensest regard: and though he may be persuaded that hers is but common dust, yet who will venture to propose to the strong man to touch that dust? It is sacred. Every heart makes of at least one grave a sanctuary. Vestal fires are kept burning there; and though it be but a deserted human body which reposes there, watch and ward are maintained over it with untiring affection.

In some degree this is a universal sentiment. No uncivilized nation exposes its dead. They give the body to the earth, or fire, or water, according to their creed; but never slight its claims to honor [8/9] or attention. Always under the sanction of suitable religious rites they dismiss it to the abodes of the fathers. Nor do they contrive a greater indignity for a criminal or a foe, or heap upon him a heavier curse, than to deprive his dead body of its rightful sepulchre. No civilized people, except the Utilitarians ever refused a quiet home to the dead, or ventured merely for the convenience of the living to disturb their long repose.

On such a subject it is useless to reason. The dead may be nothing but dust; and you may convince me that it is really a perfect indifference either to the dead or to me where that dust is scattered. But my dead are precious to me; and I love their dust. It is one of the heart's axioms,--an instinctive affection,--natural and universal.

Unite now, with this natural respect for, and attachment to the body, our instinctive fondness for society, and you have the origin of that impulsive response which every heart gives to the sentiment of the text. The social principle governs our wishes even concerning the last repose of our bodies. We prefer to rest near those whom we have loved. There is good-fellowship in a grave-yard, when kindred dust is mingled. The power of this social principle in guiding our choice concerning the place of burial is widely felt. None but a misanthrope desires a solitary grave. Who does not sympathise with that expression of Ruth's affection for one whom she loved "Where thou diest will I die, and there will I be buried." If we do not care to lie with those who have gone before us, at least we mean to lie with those who shall come after us. We make every preparation to defend ourselves against the possibility of sleeping that sleep in solitude. You argue against an instinct, when you attempt to reason a soul away from this pleasing sentiment. It may be silent, overborne by your mighty philosophy, or mightier ridicule; but still it whispers to itself, and God who made it listens to the whisper with complacency, "let thy servant, I pray thee, die in mine own city, and be buried by the grave of my father and of my mother."

Another source of this sentiment is the conviction that the dead will rise again. Although the doctrine of the resurrection is a doctrine of Christianity, yet under some form, less clearly developed, it has influenced the religious belief of many unchristianized generations. Indeed the idea of the existence of the soul without the body is an offspring of a very refined philosophy. It is one of those abstract [9/10] notions which uncultivated minds do not easily reach, nor ever fully comprehend. Consequently among the customs of almost all uncivilized nations we trace an idea that in some undefined manner the bodies of the dead will be of use to them in a future state. Hence we find them burying utensils, weapons, clothing, and even food in the grave, and not seldom supplying the dead with the nourishment which they suppose to be necessary, for many days, until the deceased become accustomed to their new homes and novel circumstances. Hence too the very common custom of embalming the dead: not for the purpose of preserving them from dissolution as from an evil which would harm them, but of reserving them for a future state of existence, undefined in its conditions, but always connected with the idea of resuming the former body. The same idea lurks in the doctrine of a transmigration of souls; and a similar notion in a very transcendental form appeared in the Brahmin theology. The spiritual condition of the departed soul was supposed to require the companionship of a highly refined body. This subtilized materialism was thought to be most readily obtained by dissolving the body as rapidly as possible into impalpable elements. They dismissed the corpse from amidst the flames of a funeral pyre, supposing that thus it would be more readily employed for the new purposes of the soul in its new abode.

Nor is this idea of the unseparableness of the perfect manhood, this idea that the soul cannot exist in its highest state of developement unless in union with a body, at all unphilosophical. If the highest reasoning be a deduction of a law from observed facts, it is according to the highest reasoning to believe that the body and soul of man will be re-united after death. We have no experience of the possibility of any spiritual intercourse with a material universe, except by means of a body. Unless then we are to suppose the soul destined forever to be excluded from the universe of matter, we have no reason for thinking that it will be forever deprived of its appropriate body. All the developement it has ever gained has been through the instrumentality of the body. The most perfect condition it has ever known is its union with the body. All sound reasoning suggests that a state of separation from this earthly companion will be a condition less perfect than the present. But we cannot imagine a less perfect condition to be eternal. Besides, death is regarded, and [10/11] was intended to be, a curse; but if freedom from the body be admission to a happier condition of spiritual existence, then death is a blessing. Affected philosophers prate about an impossibility of resurrection, when in truth all their own principles of reasoning point to its necessity.

But religion gives a substantial shape and value, and a beautifully consistent developement to these rude notions of uncultivated minds, as well as to the natural anticipations of those who reason from experience and observation. The doctrine of this Easter season is as attractive as it is true. The death and resurrection of Jesus teach us all we need know concerning the history of this human body. The soul and body will for a time live apart. The body will return to dust; the spirit to God who gave it, possessing in its separate state whatever degree of perfection may be possible to it in that condition. But its perfect life awaits the issues of that day when the voice of Christ shall call all bodies from their graves, and shall re-unite them with their proper souls. And this doctrine forms part of the creed of every Christian land. The great majority believe it, though it may be under different modifications. And the conviction that the dust of the dead is in some manner to be connected with the future life, does shape and confirm the sentiment which demands that the grave shall be inviolate. This doctrine of our holy religion adds force to the natural feeling which consecrates the burial places of our kindred dust. It hallows the spot around which memories of lost ones cluster, and gives force to the request that we may sleep our sleep, and rise at our awaking beside the dead whom we have loved in life.

It is scarcely credible that the sentiments of any considerable or influential portion of a Christian age should run so counter both to their own doctrines, and to their own natural feeling, confirmed by immemorial custom, and universal and instinctive emotions, as to endanger the repose of the dead. And yet the time has come among ourselves, when every one who feels upon this subject, must exert himself to maintain the ancient tone of popular sentiment. Public convenience no longer hesitates to violate the grave-yard; and even private convenience claims the same privilege. What cemetery is safe unless it is inaccessible? Where can the dead hope to lie [11/12] undisturbed? When grave lots are all sold or filled, in the language of the day the ground lies idle, and it is time to turn it to profit. When a grave-yard interferes with the line of a rail-road, or a street, men do not hesitate to cut through it, though at whatever cost of scattering the dust of the dead, and lacerating the hearts of the living. It is no sign of the improvement of the age that public sentiment moves coldly and indifferently on such a subject. It is a sign of our intense selfishness, of our whole absorption in present personal ease and advantage, of the deadening influence of gain upon our susceptibilities and finer emotions, of the unhappy isolation of our individual being and interests from the community of social sympathies and feelings. What! are the dead pensioners upon the living? Is theirs but a usu-fruct right to the grave they lie in? Have they no inviolable estate in the very dust which they have made? Did they bequeath themselves to us? It is time that every man who can exert influence should speak out his feelings, and give, if he may, however feeble an impulse in the right direction to public opinion. If we are not careful, Utilitarianism will carry away every ancient land-mark. What now remains to link us to former generations, but our grave-yards? Will we consent to have no memorials of the past? Shall we be contented to live only in a present which, though gigantic, will be trodden under by a more gigantic future, and leave us to utter forgetfulness?

A grave-yard possesses a moral value. The sacredness and solemn repose of the spot where the dead lie under the church shadow preach a continual sermon. We may expect the thoughtless to grow restless under the mournful eloquence of those aged tomb-stones. But the thoughtless need the admonition. Life hurries us along; and nowhere more disastrously than in the neighborhood of the most populous grave-yard of our city. Men who are so busy with the present have need to be reminded that they are busy for a future. They require to be admonished that a future will look upon them, as they look upon the past. Wisdom speaks from those grassy hillocks: "So live as you will wish you had done when you come to lie with us." Heavenly wisdom speaks in a still more earnest voice from every mound: "Prepare to meet thy God." The city cannot afford to lose its monitory grave-yards. The custodians of its morals [12/13] ought to be the last to lessen the few restraints which yet remain to curb its sin.

A grave-yard has a social value. The tendency of the age is to individualize the man, to separate his interests and feelings from the community of which he is but a part, and to give him a fictitious importance as an isolated being. It is a vicious result of selfishness. The true welfare of the race as well as the happiness of the individual are endangered by it. It is opposed to the whole theory of God's government, and the teachings of religion. It destroys the value of man to society. The grave-yard is a stern disciplinarian over such an idea. There the man is levelled. It teaches him his intrinsic value. Oh! With what bitter irony does it echo our thoughts concerning our inestimable importance to the world! How the graveyard shows us that men will not miss our absence, the world will not stop to regret our departure, but hurrying on to fill our places will accomplish its plans quite as well without us. There a man may see the actuality of isolation. There the dead lie solitary in the midst of a community. There, each one for himself, the dead men turn to dust. Will you live among living men for no higher purpose?

A grave-yard has an educational value, in developing and refining the sympathies of our nature. Our sensibilities and our community of feeling are apt to become abraided, or deadened by perpetual contact with a selfish world. Our rejoicing with them that rejoice is apt to have a note of selfishness in it; and we forget entirely how to weep with them who weep. The grave-yard reads us powerful lessons of sympathy. The sorrows which it symbolizes calls forth answering emotions in our own hearts. As we stand amidst its graves we feel that we belong to an afflicted race. Every grave-stone tells us of a multitude of wounded spirits, or reads melancholy pleasing stories of the lasting gratitude and affection of the living for the dead. We cannot be unmoved in the presence of such fellow emotions. All the ceremonial of a funeral is intended to produce the same effect. Alas! The customs of our day steel our hearts against the blessed influences of such instruction. We strive only to contrive the most indifferent, and unfeeling, and rapid methods, of hurrying the dead out of our sight. It is a great loss to the living when they are not permitted to stand beside the open grave and to feel with those [13/14] who pour their tears upon the coffin when earth falls to earth. And it is an especial loss in the training of the tender emotions of children. Who can tell what treasures of good have been unlocked in a youthful soul, by sympathizing in sorrows which, though he could not appreciate, he could feel to be great. How many a youthful heart has been smitten by the rod of parental affliction; its rock cleft, and genial streams of holy purposes gushed forth, in answer to the woes which could not restrain themselves, when standing by the grave-side and watching as dust returns to dust. The grave-yard ought never to be thrust out of sight. It is an everliving fountain of the best sympathies of our nature, and those who know with what difficulty men are taught any true unselfish fellowship of the heart, will be loth to permit the drying up of that humanizing stream.

But beyond all other considerations the grave yard has a religious value. It is a continual protest by Christian men against the infidelity which makes light of human dust, because it disbelieves in human resurrection. The most serious view of this subject arises from our conviction that a spirit of scepticism is the prime cause of weakening the general impression of the sacredness of the grave. An increasing disbelief of the doctrine of the resurrection, we fear is permitting our graves to be so often violated without rebuke. A popular infidelity, if consistent with its own premises, admits no idea of a future state; or if inconsistent, believes only in a mystical spiritualized impersonal existence. It hopes to be absorbed into the Great spirit, or at least no longer to realize the responsibilities of an individual being. Such a scepticism may well dismiss the dust of man to oblivion. But this infidelity is creeping into the church.--Where it cannot prevail by sound argument, it will overbear by the assertion of superior knowledge; and where faith will yield to neither, it hopes to find ridicule irresistible. The result has been an unhappy coalition of truth with error, a modification of revealed doctrine to suit the revelations of a half-learned philosophy. Christian men begin to think that the resurrection is to be a creation of new bodies, not a revival of the old. And for such a creed, the dust of the dead has no value. But creation is not resurrection. If any truth be taught in Scripture, it is that the same person who died--the same in body and soul--shall live again. What is necessary to constitute the sameness; whether any or how many [14/15] particles of the former bodies shall appear in the future form, we are not told. But the distinct impression is made upon our minds that an intimate connexion exists between the dust of the dead and the body of the immortal man. And this has always been the view taken by the generality of Christians. Such a belief demands the repose of the dead. I call your attention then to this important consideration,--that the willingness of Christians to see their grave yards violated is a sign of the depreciation of general faith in the doctrine of the resurrection. We hold, then, that the grave yard is a monument of faith in the resurrection of the dead, and its inviolate sacredness and repose are the attestations by a Christian people of their hope in that blessed doctrine. As we love that truth, we are unwilling to witness the destruction even of its symbol. The Grave yard is "God's Acre". He has sown its precious seeds with His own hand. Let men leave it undisturbed until He shall be ready Himself to reap its glorious harvest.

The grave yard is a Testament of Christianity. It contains indeed but one lesson of the Gospel, yet it is the seed of all Evangelical truth. Oh! how earnestly it preaches the exceeding sinfulness of sin. Oh! how solemnly it records its experience of the curse. Oh! how emphatically it proclaims the ruin of the sinner, unless a Saviour can be found. How can a thoughtful man stand within its precincts and feel the oppressive load of his own guilt, or anticipate the hour when his unpardoned soul shall appear disembodied before the Judge of all the earth, without asking himself the question, how shall a man whom sin has cursed be just before his God? And will that question, on which eternal interests abide, remain unanswered? Will any earnest-minded man, in whose breast that thought has arisen, give himself repose, until he has discovered a Redeemer on whom was laid the iniquities of us all, and for whose sake God may be just, and yet the justifier of every one who believes in Jesus? And if that grave yard hold within it, as it ought, a church; and that church-spire point upward, as it ought, to the symbol of our confidence and hope, how soon may the eyes of that penitent sinner lifted up to God's throne in prayer, catch sight of the cross. What lessons he learns there! There is no other way to heaven but past the cross. All the material helps of religion, in which unhumbled self-sufficient sinners are so willing to boast, terminate [15/16] at the cross. It is a strait and narrow way which leads to the cross. Earnest struggling effort alone lifts men to the cross. Men can get no further than the cross toward heaven. But at the foot of the cross is the nearest point to heaven. And as nothing earthly intervenes between that cross and heaven, so he that abides by it in humble faith upon him whose sacrifice it symbolizes, may rest secure, that the next step of his forgiven soul will be, from hope in Jesus, to fruition of God's eternal love.

Yes! and the best lesson of a Christian grave yard is this lesson of faith. See how quietly the dead repose. They hear no alarms. They know no fears. They do not even sympathise in your anxiety lest some rude spoiler should break into their solemn chambers. It is the very picture of calm and peaceful rest. But they rest in hope. Is it not written on many a stone? Is it not spoken to the passing crowd by the very idea of this gathering of the dead by Christian Churches? It is the picture of patient expectation not solicitous of the future, but abiding in Christ and awaiting His time.

So let your faith be, my Brethren: calm and peaceful, patient and expecting. Let every Christian grave yard lead you to repose your soul on Christ. He is the sufficient Saviour of the living, as well as of the dead. While living, taste the sweetness of confiding upon His love. While living, test His power to protect and give you peace. While living, measure the fidelity of His promises to those who commit themselves to Him. And then when dying, you may commend your soul to Him without a fear, and leave your body to His guardianship.--If you sleep in Him it will be a pleasant sleep in any place. But if you may lie beside those who shall awake at the first resurrection, you will choose rather "to die in your own" Christian City, and "to be buried" where you may catch the first sight of your rising dead, "by the" consecrated "graves of " your "father and of" your "mother."

I would not live alway, no--welcome the tomb.
Since Jesus hath lain there, I dread not its gloom;
There sweet be my rest, till he bid me arise
To hail him in triumph descending the skies.

Who would live alway, away from his God;
Away from yon Heaven, that blissful abode--
Where the rivers of pleasure flow o'er the bright plains,
And the noontide of glory eternally reigns:

Where the Saints of all ages in harmony meet
Their Saviour and brethren, transported to greet;
While the anthems of rapture unceasingly roll,
And the smile of the Lord is the feast of the Soul.

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