By Scott Dickison
If you ask the Lanier clan of the west side of HW 121 near the border of Immanuel and Candler counties in South Georgia (not sure about the other Lanier clan, who hail from just across the road on the east side) where they’re headed when they die, the answer is simple and said with confidence: Rosemary.
Rosemary Cemetery lies off of 121, down Rosemary Church Road, adjacent to the Rosemary Primitive Baptist Church, and all the Laniers are there.
We assembled at Rosemary this past weekend to lay to rest my wife’s great uncle, our oldest son’s namesake through his grandfather. He was a great man and will be sorely missed. In the days leading up to the funeral, as the family spread word of the arrangements, relaying the name of the church, which was in the closest town, and the time of the meal to be shared beforehand, the news always ended with familiar words of comfort, “…and then of course we’ll head down to Rosemary.”
As eternal resting places go, there’s nothing remarkable about Rosemary. It’s well maintained, carved from the surrounding pine tree farms, the contours of each of the family plots lined with native red clay and sand. Though for as old as it is there are surprisingly few trees in the cemetery itself, which becomes viscerally true when the entire family is huddled in the very limited shade, cast by the funeral home tent in the hot South Georgia sun.
To an outsider, or even a married-in member of the family, the gravitational pull of Rosemary isn’t always perceptible at first glance. Put simply, we don’t recognize the names. In fact, it’s not until you see the effect the place has on the people for whom it is holy, and the space it occupies in the spiritual fabric of their collective lives, that the holiness begins to bleed through, like sweat through your dress shirt.
Rosemary is sacred in a way that might seem quaint today if it weren’t so honest and essential. But it’s a sacredness that’s become increasingly rare and is probably only a generation or two away from being the stuff of stories you tell when family gathers for funerals. Here is your family, all there together, reminding you that life is fleeting and death is real, but also making concrete, or perhaps “marble,” Jesus’ words of comfort, “I have prepared a place for you.”
This is the true power of Rosemary for those who call it their own: knowing a place has been prepared for you. And not just any place, but this place that you’ve known from childhood when you played tag with cousins between the headstones, where you make pilgrimage from time to time, and where your beloveds already lay.
We’re a fragmented and disembodied people. It’s not hard to think of all the ways this is true, in our relationships, our work, our homes, our spirits. How often do we find ourselves entranced by the faces we hold on a screen in front of us at the expense of the ones sitting beside us or in the next room (their faces entranced by their screens!).
Tom Long has said that the ancient heresy of gnosticism, or “the gnostic impulse,” once again threatens authentic Christian faith today, in the form of an easy spirituality that floats around us, demanding very little, devoid of flesh and bones — having no skin in the game, so to speak. Certainly no wounds.
I think about this as we near the end of the Lenten journey. How it’s so easy to pass quickly from the triumph of Palm Sunday to the glory of Easter morning, hurrying past the intimacy of Maundy Thursday and the utter darkness of Good Friday. Will your Christ have flesh and bones this Easter? Will he have wounds?
If mine does, it will be in part because of my visit to Rosemary.
Looking at all those names, some growing more familiar with each trip, especially after the honor of helping lay some to rest, it occurred to me that there is no holiness in general, just holiness in particular. Just like there’s no forgiveness in general, there’s no love in general, no hope, no peace, no joy. These things must start some place small and familiar and go from there.
If an argument is needed for the worth of small sacred places like Rosemary — and for those who are fortunate to have one of their own, there isn’t — it’s that they teach us there must be flesh and bones before there can be spirit. But the spirit is real, too.
My wife’s family likes to say among themselves that one way or another, “we all end up in Rosemary.” I’m starting to believe this is true for more than just the Laniers.