(This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Christian Standard)
By Daniel Schantz
To a child, a cemetery is the perfect playground. It has a hundred hiding places, and if you fall down, the grass is very forgiving. I was 7 years old, playing hide-and-seek in the cemetery next to the country church, just outside of New Antioch, Ohio, where my father preached.
“Don’t play on the graves,” my mother warned. “It’s disrespectful.”
“OK,” I said, but I didn’t see it her way. I thought that if I were buried in the ground I would get really bored. Frankly, I would be thrilled to have children laughing and playing on my grave.
“And don’t get your new suit dirty,” she added.
Two things I loved about Easter—the candy, and the new clothes. On this Easter Sunday I felt “resurrected” in my new, blue gabardine suit and my Buster Brown saddle shoes.
It was time for services, so I dusted myself off and bounded up the church steps.
We sang the usual Easter songs, then my father stepped up to the pulpit. I adored my father and was always proud that he was a preacher. I remember much that he said, especially his stories, which I can repeat to this day. He was a good dad, and I trusted him.
“A cemetery is a garden,” my father began, a phrase I have never forgotten. “It’s a place where we plant our loved ones, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.” He opened his big Bible and read from 1 Corinthians 15. “That which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die. . . . So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption” (vv. 36, 42, King James Version).
We kids played in the cemetery again, after church, while we waited for our parents to call us for the ride home. I looked around the cemetery, and it did indeed look like a garden. Daffodils, crocus, and tulips were poking up everywhere, and the forsythia bushes were ablaze in yellow. But as I thought of all the dead people in the ground, I wondered about my father’s words. I had seen dead people. Was it possible they could somehow sprout like seeds and come up more beautiful than ever? I wasn’t as sure as my father was.
I could hardly wait to get home and see what my mother had bought me for Easter. To her, Easter was like Christmas, and she bought us not only Easter baskets, but also toys: a yo-yo, or a balsa airplane, or brand-new leather softballs. But on this Easter she bought me something that would forever change my life. There on the dining room table, tied up with a green ribbon, was a set of children’s gardening tools: a yellow rake, a red hoe, and a blue shovel, with a package of flower seeds thrown in.
As soon as Sunday dinner was over, I raced outdoors to try out my new garden tools. My father had already tilled a small area for my garden, and I started with my shovel, turning the soft soil over and over. Then I used my red hoe to chop big clumps of dirt into smaller pieces. Finally, I smoothed out the plot with my yellow rake.
My hands were trembling as I tore off the top of the seed packet that featured a picture of bright red zinnias on the front. But when I dumped the seeds into my palm, my face fell.
“This can’t be right,” I said to my older brother, Tommy, who was watching me work. “Look at these seeds, they are dead.” They looked like dried paint chips.
Tommy shook his head. “No, Danny, that’s how they are s’posed to look.”
I was skeptical and disappointed, but I poked some holes in my garden with my hoe handle and dropped a seed in each hole. I patted the dirt down, lovingly, and stood back to admire my work.
Every day for the next three weeks I checked on my zinnias after school, but nothing came up, just as I feared.
“The ground is still cold, Danny,” my father said. “Be patient.”
But I was never patient, and when nothing came up in the next two weeks, I lost interest in my garden, and the plot soon became a jungle of crabgrass and foxtail weeds.
One day in May I was chasing a yellow swallowtail butterfly in the backyard, when it disappeared into my weedy garden. Slowly I crept up to the spot and peered into the weeds. There sat the butterfly on a beautiful red zinnia, hidden in the weeds. I pulled back the weeds to find six more zinnia plants, each with small, red blooms on them. Forgetting the butterfly, I ripped out the rest of the weeds so my zinnias could breathe. In the next few weeks they grew tall and the blooms became as big as my mother’s potholders. I picked her a bouquet, which seemed to please her more than anything I had ever done.
It was the closest thing I had ever seen to a miracle. Tiny, papery seeds had been transformed into magnificent blooms right before my eyes. Suddenly it no longer seemed so impossible that dead people could sprout to new life.
I was hooked on gardening, for life. And every spring, when I drop seeds into rows of dirt, I think of my father’s words about cemeteries, and I envision the day when they plant my tired old body in our nearby cemetery and erect a marker with my name on it. My great-grandchildren will play on my gravesite—with my blessing—leaping and laughing in their pretty new clothes.
And some warm day when the time is right, an angel will sound a signal, and the earth will crumble around me, and I will rise, dressed in a brand-new Easter suit to meet the Lord in the air.
My father in Heaven said so, and I trust my father.
Daniel Schantz is professor emeritus at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.