At Franciscan cemetery, friars recall departed spiritual brothers, reflect on death

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Most of us face death when a loved one
passes away, and family and friends head to a cemetery.

But at the Franciscan
Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, the friars may think about death more
often than most people since a cemetery with their Franciscan brothers who have
died is right in their backyard, lining a pastoral path where the living walk on
crisp fall days.

On All Souls’ Day this year, that’s where they gathered for
midday prayer, to include the dead in their prayers and to include them in life
by remembering them.

“It’s simple tradition,” but one that has been around for
decades, said Father Larry Dunham, the guardian of the monastery. “We gather
for our Franciscan family, our religious family.”

Midday prayer is one of shortest parts of the Liturgy of the
Hours, which the friars pray several times at a day but they have chosen the
prayer in the middle of the day, when the sun is at its highest, to include the
dead in the ritual they took part in so often in life, “which is significant,
too,” Father Dunham told Catholic News Service.

“We’re taking this time out and we’re celebrating with them,”
he said, adding that after the prayer and a blessing of the cemetery, “We go to
lunch, we’re going to tell tales that makes (the dead) present. We laugh and we
cry. It puts them in our mind and we have a feast for them and continue that eucharistic
element that is still in everything we do as a church.”

This year, the brothers buried in the Franciscans’ cemetery
received a special blessing as Franciscan Father Francesco Patton, the new
custos of the Holy Land Franciscans,
was present and sprinkled holy water on the graves. Custos is equivalent to a provincial minister.

“It connects us who are living with the part of the church
that has passed on,” said Franciscan Father Greg Friedman, who attended the
event with about 20 other friars present for the prayer and blessing.

With the sun at its zenith, Jesus, too, who is the sun, is “very
powerfully present in all of this,” said Father Dunham. Though friars often
take walks in the backyard, it’s rare that they gather as a community in the back,
except for funerals and during All Souls’ Day, he said.

The day is special, Father Dunham said, because the church
asks its members to stop and take account of the people who have died, and
their lives.

“It’s kinda cool that a day is set aside like this,” he
said. “We, in our faith, we believe that it’s positive and effective and good
to pray for the dead.”

Although, as with any family member, recent deaths can be
difficult on any community.

“You live with these people, day in and day out, you get used
to them, and not having their presence here is very keenly felt,” said Father

But death, which society often tries to hide or not talk
about, is something that the friars often consider.

“Every time there’s a funeral here, or on All Souls’ Day, I
think, where they’ve gone, that’s where I’m going to go,” he said. “I start to
think, where am I going to be planted? But at the same time, not being macabre
because this is part of the process of entering into what Jesus has won for us:
eternal life.”

It’s a good exercise to think about death, resurrection and
to face it, he said.

“It’s not hidden when you’re here,” he said, sitting on some
stones near the graves. “It’s a good thing to remind me, this is my hope and
this is my faith. Yes, I’m going to be here but I’m going to enter into eternal
life. I really believe in the Resurrection.”

Sometimes, when the friars have visitors, he likes to point
out the cemetery in the back and some say: “Oh my gosh, you have a cemetery.”

But that may lead some to reflect on death, faith and Jesus,
he said.

“This is a constant reminder that Jesus has already won the
victory,” he said. “It’s really healthy for our faith and our spirituality and
to say we don’t fear this.”

In praying for the dead on All Souls’ Day, he said, we’re
also preparing ourselves.

“Because we’re called, too, to die and rise again with the
Lord,” he said. “All Souls’ Day is not business as usual.”

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Follow Guidos on Twitter: @CNS_Rhina.

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