In a recent email exchange with a friend, I wondered why her husband referred to his family’s private cemetery in Texas as just that—a cemetery not a graveyard. A quick Internet check revealed that “cemetery” refers to a designated burial ground located anywhere; “graveyard” usually implies a space for the dead specifically located within or near a church’s property.
This moment of clarity reminded me of another name for a burial place—God’s Acre. For a short while during my pre- and early teens I became part of the behind-the-scenes world of the Easter Sunrise service at Bethania Moravian Church in Bethania, North Carolina, (now part of Winston-Salem) and walked many times through their God’s Acre. (Proof positive that God doesn’t always wreak havoc when highly suspect people pass through sacred places and spaces.)
Brought up in the American (not Southern) branch of the Baptist Church, I wouldn’t have known anything about Moravians, but you mostly can’t escape their culture if you live in Winston-Salem. Plus, my beloved godfather was a Moravian. A fine tenor, he shared his talent with area choirs. We attended the annual performance of The Messiah to hear his glorious voice in the solos; my father still has “Uncle” Ron’s dog-eared, brittling libretto on his bookshelf.
Moravians are Protestants; there are fewer than a million adherents worldwide. They came about in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, several decades after the death of the Reformer Jon Hus in the mid-fifteenth century. Like many religious groups throughout history they moved and moved and moved again seeking a peaceful place to worship their way. Ultimately, along with tracts in Pennsylvania (the central Lehigh Valley) and Georgia (this settlement returned to Pennsylvania), they bought land in the western Piedmont area of North Carolina. After establishing the small outpost colonies of Bethabara (1753) and Bethania (1759), they founded Salem in 1766. That town merged with its neighbor, Winston, in 1913. This brief summation does no justice to a marvelous story of existence and persistence, nor does it address the beautiful simplicity of their faith and its emphasis on love or their wonderful culture. The best way to get the full story is to visit Old Salem in Winston-Salem (www.oldsalem.org).
When Uncle Ron passed away, far too young, I was nine or ten years old. For a while I was close to his widow and accompanied her to Moravian functions. My favorite of all was to help feed the band before the Sunrise service at Easter.
Moravians celebrate their faith, in part, through music. Specific to this story, the brass bands from their several churches roam through Winston-Salem starting at 2:00 Easter Sunday morning rousing the town with “Sleepers Awake!” The band members travel by designated buses, playing five to ten minutes at full volume at every stop to wake the citizens, making sure they will congregate outside their churches in the dark to hear at the precise moment of sunrise the news that is always announced this way:
Minister: “The Lord is risen!”
Congregation: “The Lord is risen indeed!”
If you wonder how it is that such an old-fashioned way of waking people up works in modern times, rest assured that Winston-Salemites take this notification seriously. Many people leave their windows open when they go to bed on Easter Eve, regardless of the weather. Or they set an alarm, so as not to miss the mystical sounds of brass music by moonlight.
You should also know that after years of waking in the wee hours and waiting outside in the dark in often freezing weather for the sun to rise, people with this history might not think much of “sunrise” services that start at designated hours like 7:00 or 8:00 AM. Or maybe that’s just me.
All of this hauling around of instruments, standing in all kinds of weather, playing the same song with passion over and over again, and climbing on and off buses works up one big appetite. To warm up the band members and fuel them for their next part in the service, the church feeds them breakfast as they come in from playing. My job was to help cook in the Bethania church kitchen starting around 3:00. We made pancakes, scrambled eggs, cooked sausage, and bacon, poured endless cups of coffee, served, and cleaned up. Then we took off our aprons, straightened our steamy hair and clothes, put on coats and scarves and gloves that felt like much too much, and stepped outside into the cold, cold dark.
The band thus fed and the people assembled, the brief spoken part of the sunrise service outside the church starts and ends in a matter of minutes. Then the band leads the congregation (who hopefully grabbed a quick bite at home) to God’s Acre, playing antiphonally. That is, the band divides into two groups, one section playing a musical phrase which is then answered by the other musicians who have walked ahead silently. This leap-frogging seemed to my young self to happen magically, and the echoing sound of the antiphonal brass music erased all thoughts of cold feet and ankles wet with dew from the carefully tended grass among the graves, scrubbed clean by family members the week before. Once everyone is assembled again, another brief service of music, prayer, and rejoicing is held.
God’s Acre, usually a short walk away from the church and located on a hill, is unique among cemetery types. The name derives from old German for “God” and “field,” accommodating the belief that the dead are seeds awaiting resurrection; it has nothing to do with the graveyard being an acre in size. Moravians have a strong sense of equality in life and project that evenness into death. They bury their dead in “choirs,” groups organized by gender, age, and marital status. Graves are placed in the order in which people die—“the next open space.” No one is buried by family, in special vaults, or in family groups. Only Moravians are buried in God’s Acre.
This equal standing concept is carried out visually as well. Every white stone grave marker is the same shape and size (about eighteen inches by twenty-four) and lies flat on the ground. Individuality comes with the person’s name, birth and death dates, often birth place, and sometimes a biblical phrase or other sentiment. Thanks to those hungry band members, I had the occasion to read many times the engraving on my talented godfather’s marker in Bethania’s God’s Acre: “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
SEE ALL “GOD’S ACRE” PHOTOS HERE: