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The Rector: Engraved on a Rock Forever

Sunday 15th May
Easter 4
Rev Nicholas Mercer

One of my unexpected responsibilities on becoming the incumbent at Bolton Priory was responsibility for the graveyard

In my previous job, the graveyard was owned by the town council

All I had to do was turn up, take the funeral, not forgetting to bless the grave as the ground was un-consecrated

However, the responsibility for the graveyard became fully mine when I arrived in post

Shortly after I arrived, I received a letter from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

They advised me that we had a war grave and asked if we would display a sign indicating the same at the entrance

As a former Army Officer I was delighted – but had no idea we had a war grave

After some further investigation, I found that we had one belonging to a Lieutenant Smeeth

He was a pilot officer in WWI and was killed in 1917

He is now in a family grave at the bottom of the graveyard

You might imagine that such a grave would go largely unnoticed and indeed it did for my first year

Then, quite by chance I was asked to take the funeral for a man called Timothy Smeeth

As the name suggests, he was a direct relation

I took the service at the crematorium but, sometime afterwards, I was asked to inter the ashes in the family grave

I find the service of interment very moving and I always read the Old Testament passage we heard this morning

As Job says

“Oh that my words were written down, oh that they were inscribed in a book

O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever

For I know that my Redeemer lives”

But when I looked down at this particular grave I realised that the words were, indeed, written in lead

The resonance of these words has stayed with me ever since

But the words from the Book of Job asks us all question – a question for this morning

What would we like written on our grave?

What would we like engraved on rock “written with an iron pen and with lead?”

Or looking at this from another angle, what is appropriate?

There are, of course, some wonderfully entertaining inscriptions

Among my favourite are Spike Milligan’s wonderful last words “I told you I was ill” cleverly disguised in Gaelic

But there are a host of other ones too

Just an assortment include

“Here lies John Yeast, Pardon me for not rising”

Or an American headstone which reads

“We finally found a place to park in Georgetown”

There are an assortment of one liners

“Now I know something you don’t”

“All dressed up and nowhere to go”

To the more profound such as

“I came here without being consulted and I leave without my consent”

There are the overtly political such as the headstone to a Vietnam veteran which read

“They gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one”

We all enjoy some graveyard humour, but there is less scope in England where headstones are heavily regulated by the law

If you want to see some wonderful memorials HOWEVER then it is hard beat St Andrews Church in Wells

There is the grave to Siegfried Sassoon which has just his name and dates

To the tomb of Lady Helena Bonham Carter with her family coat arms

But it is hard to beat the memorial to Edward Horner who was killed in France in 1917

Commemorated by a statue of him on a horse, sculpted by Alfred Munnings and placed on a plinth designed by Edward Lutyens

It is a wonderful tribute to a wonderful son

But returning to me my question as to what we would like on our gravestone and what is appropriate

It is not an easy question

As a former military man, I like military detail because it is always interesting to someone who has served in the Armed Forces

There is historical detail too

My mother was a daughter of Empire

Born into a Yorkshire industrial family, her Father was in the British Army

As a result, she was born in India in 1936 and spent the first few years of her life in the Raj

I love the fact that that is recorded AT the family grave in Scalby just outside Scarborough

But in terms of personal preference, I always find myself drawn to the simple graves with just a name and date

However, perhaps the clue as to what to write and what is appropriate, we need look at the matter theologically

Pope John Paul II was the head of the World Wide Catholic Church yet wished to be buried in the simplest manner possible

He is buried in the underground crypt at the Vatican with just his name and dates on the memorial

It sends such a powerful message about his Godliness and humility

Mother Theresa of Calcutta looked at it another way when she said

“I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask how many good things have you done in your life but how much love did you put into what you did”

Perhaps we are all missing the point?

It should be our lives alone that should speak rather than our headstone

But I think that a further clue may be found in the Book of Job itself which we read this morning

We might be written about/ or indeed have our deeds recorded in a book that they might engraved in lead

But the most important thing for all us is to know and to proclaim is that we know “that our Redeemer lives”

That is the greatest epitaph of them all