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That cloud of witnesses

An All Souls’ commentary by Fr Martin Sirju, parish priest, San Fernando

Walking through the Paradise Cemetery two weeks ago, I was quite struck by how unmaintained the graves were. The grass was cut yes, but this was most likely done by the city corporation. With All Souls’ just a week away I found the graves unpainted, stained black through lack of regular cleaning, broken and generally unattractive. Lapeyrouse may be a bit better.

The Paradise Cemetery is hugged by the San Fernando elite. Yet they spend precious little on the tombs of their ancestors. They have good reasons today – economic downturn, business is expensive, so is education, not to mention medical care, and life generally busier. Yet C3 and Southpark are full, with little room in the car parks even on weekdays. Money is still spending liberally. Black Friday coming soon and Christmas too!

It’s not like this in the US. Even in the sleepy village of Mt Gilead, Ohio where my farmer friends live, their cemeteries are well kept, including the small one opposite the Harmony Hall Methodist Chapel. There are many next to Catholic churches in the US and these are nicely kept too.

When we move out of Paradise Cemetery into other areas of the country cemeteries are practically abandoned. Our own cemetery in Fullerton, Cedros is in a state of neglect most of the year. Many of the ornate tombs, gems of history, now lie in ruins.

This is a kind of cultural nimakharam-ness. Naipaul says in Middle Passage: “We lived in a society that denied itself heroes.” So true. We no longer take the time to honour our heroes, our “saints”, our “cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1). No wonder life is so cheap today. If we fail to remember the saints of the past – their faith, their values, their witness, their hope, their love and sacrifice, then the national ship will run out of fuel. The tank at the moment is perilously low.

At the heart of Jewish and Christian faith is anamnesis – a ‘calling to mind’. The event par excellence when Jews ‘remember’ or ‘call to mind’ is Passover. At the centre of Passover is national liberation and freedom.

We too hear something similar at Mass all the time: “calling to mind the death your Son endured for our salvation …” The death of Jesus points the way to victory. This is why the altar is such an important focus on Good Friday: stripped naked like Jesus it represents His death, His tomb, en route to the glorious victory of Easter.

The earliest Masses were celebrated on the tombs of the martyrs. The ‘saints’ – the Christian faithful – shared the Eucharist there for nowhere could they find a more potent spot to call to mind their suffering and fidelity so as to create hope for the future.

As Tertullian [Christian author, circa 155–240 AD] wisely observed: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Our society has too easily forgotten the “blood, sweat and tears” of the martyrs – both actual and figurative.

We remember our foreparents whose genes for survival we have inherited as they endured with faith slavery and indentureship; we remember Caribbean novelists and artists who painted abiding pictures of hope; we remember priests and nuns who shaped our lives and helped our families; and our children in whom we had put our dreams but, alas, went too soon.

The prophets always exhorted Israel to remember the covenant and they will be saved. We too can be saved as a nation if we remember the way of the ancestors. We Catholics do this by lighting candles on the graves of the dead and telling stories on All Souls’. We used to anyway. We need to do so again.