German Lesson in a Graveyard: A Solemn Call to Arms

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.

(photo: Photo by Kevin Knight)

“The gift of Christ’s Body makes everyone a priest;
because everyone can offer the Body of Christ on the altar of his own life.”
Caryll Houselander

It was sure hot – hottest day of the summer the guy said on the radio. “How can he know that yet?” I thought to myself. “It’s only the middle of July – what about August?” Still, it was hard to be skeptical: It was really hot. And humid. I had the windows down in the Siena – the windows down in front, and the side windows cracked open at the back – and I could feel the heavy air flowing past me as I drove. The air conditioning in that van doesn’t work, but I wouldn’t use it if it did, even on days like this. No, I’d rather feel the full force of the heat. It’s the kind of day I’ll recall in February, when I’m wearing long underwear and shivering in my down coat: “That hottest day of the year, I felt it – I lived it and felt it, and nothing can take it away, nothing can erase it.”

It was hot, and I had time. I had a coffee in the cup holder and an unread newspaper on the seat, nothing pressing on my agenda, so I detoured to the cemetery – my cemetery, our cemetery. There’s a leafy tree near our grave plots, near our friend’s, and I knew I could enjoy the heat in the shade while I sipped coffee and perused the paper.

There’s a place to park in front of the cemetery’s big crucifix. I grabbed my accoutrements and a folding chair, and I started off toward that tree, glancing here and there at the grave markers and their inscriptions. That’s part of the pleasure hanging out there – getting to know the neighborhood, getting to know the inhabitants and speculating about their stories. They all have stories, I know – lives lived, triumphs and failures, little ones, the daily victories of arising every day and going about the ordinary stuff of getting by, and sometimes not. We all have stories, too, everyone does – every single person you meet has a story that would make you weep and laugh and ponder. And these future neighbors of mine, I hope I’ll have a chance to hear theirs – how close will my conjectures be?

I walked past a curved row of markers close to the ground – Sister this and Sister that. German names, mainly, and a monogram in the corner of them all: PHJC – the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, a religious community that used to run the local St. Joseph Hospital. I walked past, noting the names and dates, and there’s one that snags my eye: Sister M. Patricia Becker, 1884-1918. “Hmm, Becker,” I mutter. “Wonder if we’re related?” On the off chance we are, I stopped and said a prayer for her – and her confreres. Then I felt funny about the “on the off chance” impetus. There’s no end to the second-guessing when it comes to attempting the good.

A bit further on, there’s the double row of taller tombstones marking the graves of priests who served in local parishes – I’ve seen it before. There are deceased pastors of St. Monica, St. Anthony and St. Joe. Even St. Matthew, my home parish, is represented at least once: Rev. Arnold Wibbert is buried there, the rector of St. Matthew from 1933 until 1969. That’s 36 years!

Back behind Wibbert’s grave marker, though, I noted another that cited a comparable 36-year run of pastoral ministry: Very Rev. A. B. Oechtering, pastor of St. Joseph in Mishawaka until 1902. “Pray for me,” it states simply at the bottom of the epitaph. I was happy to pause and oblige.

Then, as I continued on toward my leafy destination, I spied some text on the back of Oechtering’s marker, near the base. It was German – one of the words was “sind,” a conjugation of sein (“to be”), as I recall from my high school days. I also spotted “die,” but the rest I couldn’t make out because of the lichen or moss or something obscuring the engraving. I crouched and rubbed the letters to clear up the two lines. “Selig sind die toden,” it read. “Die im Herrn sterben.”

“That’s worth looking up,” I said to myself as I got out a pen and scrap of paper. Here’s a foreign phrase on the reverse of a grave marker with a very explicit imperative, “Pray for me,” so I had to conclude that Msgr. Oechtering was equally intentional in including this German couplet – especially since I didn’t see anything comparable on any of the other priestly gravestones. I jotted it down and determined to Google a translation when I could.

Turns out, it’s a Bible verse – a bit of Revelation 14:13 to be exact. Here’s the English from the RSV: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” The German version I found on Monsignor’s grave marker is pretty much a direct quotation from Martin Luther’s translation, and so it’s no surprise that it also shows up frequently in the works of German composers – most notably, perhaps, in the last movement in Braham’s Requiem. And probably because it was such a commonly referenced text in their cultural heritage, the verse also became a staple on the tombs and memorials of German-speaking believers.

So, a couple things to note. First, the oblique ecumenism of Monsignor’s epitaph. The German text encapsulates the ultimate aspirations of an entire Christian people, regardless of ecclesial affiliations. As Catholics, we rightly believe that the true church of Christ subsists in our Church – that she represents the fullness of what Christ intended the church to have, to be – but that doesn’t mean we have a monopoly on salvation.

In truth, all German Catholics and Lutherans and Anabaptists – all who claim Christ as Lord – have always held in common a single goal: to join the blessed who “die in the Lord” and enjoy the eternal communion of the Trinity. In a sense, Msgr. Oechtering’s selection of the Revelation passage for his gravestone – auf Deutsch, no less, in German, accentuating its place in the cultural patrimony he shared with those who didn’t share his Faith – was an implicit acknowledgement of that fact.

All is grace, as Bernanos affirms, all is grace.

Beyond these ecumenical intimations, I found it edifying to read the full context of the grave marker’s partial quotation of Rev. 14:13: “Blessed indeed,” the verse goes on with reference to the blessed dead, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (emphasis added). John witnesses here to the truth that the stuff of our temporal perseverance – the gritty getting to heaven of our earthly lives – is something that lingers with us into eternity. What we do every day – what we think, what we do, namely how we interact with all those other folks living their own stories – won’t be jettisoned once we pass the Pearly Gates, won’t be deleted. It will all remain indefinitely, it seems, as the train of our garments at the celestial feast.

This has implications for our vision of Purgatory and its aftermath, but more importantly, I’d say, are the implications for our day-to-day behaviors – even moment to moment. If our end goal is to be blessed as we die in the Lord, as Monsignor’s monument warrants, then we have to live accordingly. Now. There’ll be no rest from our labors later, if we haven’t labored now. And we’ll surely want the deeds that follow us into that rest to appropriately attest to our belonging there.

“But I’m no priest,” you might protest. “I’m no monsignor with blessed hands and the power to make God in the Mass. I’m an ordinary sinner.” Yes, me, too – as was Monsignor Oechtering, by his own admission. Remember what’s on the front of his grave marker? “Pray for me,” plain and direct. Monsignor’s priesthood wasn’t enough to save him, he knew well. There’s no free pass, even for holy pastors. Together we trudge along, all of us, trudging, trudging, with the muck of our mangled motives mixed up with intermittent flashes of heroic charity and kindness. What a mess we are, and yet somehow God chooses to shape us into saints.

It’s no secret, really, no spectacular insight. It’s simply a cosmic consequence of Christ having come to dwell among us – in us, you see, he is us in a way. “The ordinary life itself becomes sacramental, and every action of anyone at all has an eternal meaning,” Caryll Houselander writes. “Christ is everywhere; in Him every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life.”

Even after we’re dead, it seems – through our prayers, God willing, but even in what we leave behind. I’ve been back to visit A.B. Oechtering’s gravesite a couple of times already since that hot, hot day. I’m humbled and inspired by his witness – the witness of his many years of faithful service as a priest, to be sure, but also the witness of his twofold final charge. “Pray for me,” he pleads from beyond, a reminder that I’m called to solidarity with those who’ve preceded me in death. Plus, there’s that couplet from Revelation that reminds me that I still have time to prepare for my own death in the Lord.

May I use it wisely. Rest in peace, A.B. Oechtering. Pray for me.