Sunbrick field, in Cumbria, where Margaret Fell and a host of 17th century Friends are buried.
UNLIKE SOME FAMILIES, mine never had the tradition of visiting cemeteries to put flowers on graves. My father was not one to discuss the afterlife — or any faith issues. My mother was the regular churchgoer. She believed strongly in life after death, but on a different plane. For her, when a person died, there was no need to visit the place where the body was buried, or ashes scattered, since they were no longer ‘there.’
So why do I visit burial grounds today? Sometimes it’s to sense a connection with long-dead ancestors who are otherwise simply names on a family tree. But usually, it’s to feel a connection with Quaker communities — whether there are headstones or, in the case of older ones, just a simple field. Sunbrick, in Cumbria, where Margaret Fell and a host of 17th century Friends are buried, is a field of nettles where sheep graze, with a stone wall offering a little protection from the strong winds that blow across the Furness peninsula.
I go to Bunhill Fields in London to be close to George Fox — even though he has no specific grave. He was buried in a field that predated any meetinghouse. While there is a plaque commemorating him, all we know is that his bones are there, with many others, somewhere nearby. After visiting the Quaker site, I cross the street to go into the larger Dissenters’ burial ground, also dating from the 17th century, where 123,000 interments apparently took place. Prominent writers and musicians are there, including William Blake, John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and Isaac Watts. Since Blake’s poetry and Bunyan and Defoe’s writing shaped my early education, and I grew up singing hymns to Isaac Watts’ tunes, it is good to spend time with them.
There’s a burial ground in rural Rosenallis, in Ireland’s County Laois, where mature trees shade the graves. William Edmundson is there. He served in Oliver Cromwell’s army in the English Civil War, became a Quaker after hearing James Nayler preach, and moved to Ireland to open a draper’s store. The first meeting for worship in Ireland took place in his home in 1664, and he is recognized as the person who brought the Quaker message to Ireland. He crossed the Atlantic four times to travel in the ministry in the Caribbean and North America.
When I take a detour to visit Rosenallis, it’s not so much to be close to William Edmundson as to be in a peaceful place where I feel welcomed by a host of Irish Friends from the past. I felt that same welcome when I spent six weeks at Moyallon Centre, a small retreat center set up by Irish Friends on the site of a revival camp. For most nights I was alone, but was in the friendly company of the Ulster Friends in the burial ground.
A group of Quakers peering at a headstone in a cemetery.
One of my favorite photos is of a group of Quakers on a bus trip to County Tyrone, bending over to peer at a headstone in a cemetery. They look… quintessentially Quaker. While I often share the image to raise a smile, the story behind it is serious, deadly serious in fact. We were in the cemetery of the Catholic church in Clonfeacle, looking at the grave of a priest, Arthur Kelly. The fact that he had lived a long life was probably thanks to the bravery of the Quakers of Grange Meeting. Quakers and Presbyterians suffered under the 17th century Penal Laws, but Catholics suffered most. Priests were expelled from Ireland, and were subject to instant execution if found. Many courageous priests continued to celebrate Mass in secret, often in remote parts of the countryside. Arthur Kelly was sheltered from bounty hunters by members of Grange Meeting, who moved him between their homes.
We share our faith by telling stories of faithful predecessors. Sometimes there are buildings where significant events happened. But often graveyards are the places where history, and courage, come to life in a way that is more vivid than simply reading about the past.