A few years ago, I took my children on a much needed vacation. I mean a real vacation. When they were small, whenever I got vacation time, we pretty much stayed home, spending time together watching movies, cleaning house, and other exciting events that we never had time to do together. So when I had the chance, I mapped out a route to Albuquerque, New Mexico to meet some of my son’s siblings on his father’s side.
One of my best friends lives in Williams, Arizona. I hadn’t seen her in about 10 years, so I decided to go the Albuquerque by way of Williams. You may know that Williams is a small town in northern Arizona. It was founded in 1881, so there is a rich history behind the town.
According to one website, Williams had a reputation as a rough and rowdy frontier town. There were saloons, brothels, opium dens and gambling houses that catered to the cowboy, logger, Chinese laborer and railroad worker seeking entertainment. Historic Route 66 runs through Williams. At one time, Route 66 was the highway of choice for anyone driving across America.
Williams was the last town passed by Interstate Highway 40, which took most of the traffic away from Route 66. One of the most popular things about Williams is the Grand Canyon Railway. It’s an old fashioned train that you can ride from Williams to the Grand Canyon. I love trains, so one day I hope to go back to Williams and ride that train!
There’s one thing about Williams, though, that really intrigued me. After a wonderful visit with my friend and her family, the kids and I were leaving town when we saw a cemetery just off the road. I decided to stop and take a walk through it. Maybe it seems weird to you, but I enjoy cemeteries. Sometimes as you walk through them, reading the headstones, you find out interesting things.
Graves can tell stories. For instance, when I lived in a town in the Midwest, my sister Sally and I found a family who lost five babies in five years, and the same year the last one died, the mother also died. My sister sat down on the ground in front of them and cried. Headstones often have epitaphs that tell you something about the person who died.
Sometimes the epitaphs are poetic, or touching. Sometimes they are kind of silly, like this one In a New Jersey cemetery:
She drank good ale,
good punch and wine
And lived to the age of 99.
Or this one from Battersea, England
Than he could pay
I’ve seen a lot of cemeteries across the United States, but the one in Williams was different than any other cemetery I’ve seen. I have never seen a cemetery where the family was allowed to paint the name of the person who passed away on a piece of plywood.
In Williams, we saw a number of these makeshift headstones. There were some very emotionally touching graves that made me stop and wonder about the families who had loved ones buried there. There were three that I will never forget. Two of them were next to each other. The graves were surrounded by the kind of metal fence that is usually put around a swimming pool. You know the kind I mean? They were painted bright colors. One was painted baby pink, the other was a different color – perhaps yellow. One of them had an actual headstone, and the other had a piece of painted plywood.
Young girls were buried in both graves, one was about 21 when she died; the other was 16 or 17. Of course, the loss of such young girls was sad to me, but the thing that touched me most was what was on the headstones. You see, right in the center of each of these headstones was a photograph of the girl who was buried there – wearing her Quinceñera gown. I just knew that these girls were loved, and that their memories will live on for a long time.
There was another grave in the cemetery in Williams that I will never forget. It was just a small granite slab on the ground. A girl’s name was cut into the stone, along with the dates. Underneath her name and dates of her birth and death was a quotation. It read “She died to save her friends.” How she died, or how she saved her friends was not there. It’s a mystery. The little girl was five years old.
There is a saying that “As long as one person remembers you, you're never really gone.” Today we remember those who have passed away this year and in years before. We still feel connected to those who we have loved. They have gone before us to prepare our way for us. We keep them alive in our memories.
In a moment we will have a chance to remember our loved ones who have gone on before us leaving us behind. Around the sanctuary you will find candles. You will also find paper and writing instruments. Please take a few moments to find a candle that you would like to light in memory of your loved one. Go to it, and say a little prayer if you wish. If you would like to write or draw something for your loved one, please do so, using the paper and writing instrument you will find there.
When you are ready, pick up the lighter or matches and light the candle. As you do so, think about something special that you remember about the person you have lost. Think about how we are all connected to God through Christ. When you are finished, please return to your seat.
In Isaiah 25:6-9, Isaiah declared to the people of Israel that
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
This is the promise of God: that death shall be swallowed up forever and that all peoples – ALL PEOPLES – shall one day feast and the God shall wipe away the tears from all faces. Through the love that he had for his friend Lazarus, Jesus shows us that He truly is the gateway to Heaven.
In Williams, Arizona, a grave holds the body of a little girl who “died to save her friends.” Jesus also “died to save his friends,” that is you and me and all humanity, but no grave holds Him, for He has risen to Life Everlasting. One day, we will all be gathered together into the arms of God. And on that day, we will know without a doubt that “this is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”