A few months ago I took a short cut as I walked between appointments. I was in a part of Sydney I’d known since I was a boy, but behind a discreet fence and a large hedge, I found evidence of a lost world. I had stumbled across Sydney’s historic Gore Hill Cemetery in all its neglected glory.
Most of the graves range from the late 1800s to the early 20th century—many are in decay, some have caved in, some markers are broken or eroded, and others are overgrown. The cemetery is carefully divided into denominational sections, with each reflecting the unique culture of its community.
Weeping lasts for the night, but joy comes in the morning.
I entered the cemetery in the Roman Catholic quadrant with its ornate graves, emotive statuary and rich imagery. As I walked down the uneven path between the graves, I noticed a significant change—I’d walked across an invisible line into the Anglican zone, a sector dominated by memorials reflecting quiet dignity and a certain restraint.
It was in the Baptist sector that I came across an unusual grave. I suppose it caught my eye because it broke the symmetry of the plots; it was only a third of the size of the other graves. The simple cross was partially covered by thorny brambles. I reached down and gently pulled them to one side to reveal the inscription:
Our Idol in Life, Our Angel in Death
Aged 2 years and 9 months
I am not an excessively sentimental man, but there was something about the universal vulnerability that comes from loving a little life with everything a parent has, that spoke to me. Who was little Jackie, I wondered. How did he die? Did Jackie’s mum and dad have any other children? Did they ever recover from their devastating loss? As I looked down on that little plot of ground, my heart ached. Jackie was obviously the joy of his mummy’s and daddy’s existence, the sun in their morning, their love in the evening, their hope, their dream, their most precious of precious. And yet, despite all their love and care, irrespective of their fervent desires and heartfelt wishes, they were forced to lay Jackie’s lifeless little body, along with their own hearts, in this tiny cemetery plot.
I suppose Jackie’s parents have long since passed away themselves, as has everyone who stood by that little grave on September 27, 1912—a century ago this year. Everyone who ever held Jackie in their arms, who changed his nappies, who played little games with him, who made him laugh and who comforted him when he cried, all of them have been washed away with little Jackie into the abyss of time that awaits us all.
As I contemplated Jackie’s grave, I began to understand nihilism—the rejection of any meaning in life. Where is justice, where is love, where is significance of any kind in a world where every ounce of human devotion can be swept into nothingness in an instant? Why impose meaning on a reality so patently devoid of compassion, reason or temporal redemption? It’s a question everyone has to confront, I suppose, but when a parent buries a child, the question transcends the abstract mental games of armchair philosophers. There is no pain more cruel, no loss more disillusioning, no question more confronting. And all the simple answers and silver linings, all the trite truisms and tortured explanations, amount to nothing more than an aversion of the mental eye to the inexplicable human suffering death inflicts on us.
And yet, here in this abandoned field of pain, only a few steps from Jackie’s grave, the Baptists erected a gateway. And there on the gateway, engraved deep in stone, are words of hope and healing from Scripture: “Weeping lasts for the night, but joy comes in the morning”.
I don’t know what the future holds for me or the people I am most devoted to. I do, however, know that loving the Lord is no inoculation from the most devastating pain this life inflicts. But in the desperation and devastation of lonely graves, there is a glimmer of hope. Not hope in this world, where even Christ Himself was described as a “man of sorrow acquainted with grief”, but hope for a better world in which all the tears that we have so bitterly wept are wiped away. Hope that our God, who suffered the death of His own Son, understands and empathises with our pain. Hope that the same Christ, who conquered death Himself 2000 years ago, will one day soon conquer death for all of us.
Christ’s resurrection doesn’t anesthetise us to the pain we have right here, right now. But it does give us something to look forward to—something that provides an intrinsic meaning to life, even as we struggle to comprehend and recover from the series of losses that inevitably accompany life in a sinful world. It’s a Christian cliché—but for a good reason—that graveyards will be the happiest places on earth when Christ returns.
As I walked out of the cemetery, I looked backed through the stone arch to Jackie’s cross, and thought I cannot wait for the day when little Jackie is back in the arms of his mummy and daddy, and all the hopes and dreams of his family become a joyful reality. I can’t wait for that day for my family, too.
James Standish is communication director for the South Pacific Division.