One of my pastimes is to wander cemeteries. The older the better–and more interesting. The artwork on gravestones is full of imagery and symbolism. I’ve been in classic world-famous cemeteries like Pere Lachaise, in Paris, Evergreen, in my hometown and quaint very old graveyards that sit in the quiet spaces beside churches in England. And, I’ve been to small towns in northern New York State where the burying grounds are simple, spare, small and, sadly, unkempt. I’ve stood in old sections of these rural graveyards and looked with dismay at the vandalism of old heavy stones.
But, lately, I’ve been struck with the nature of a tomb’s edifice. The variety is endless. Some headstones are slate or granite. Some are marble in various colors. The mausoleums can be humble and decayed. I’ve peered through the iron gates and have seen leaves and litter that have blown in. Many are locked tight and prevent anyone from looking inside. Some tombstones are large and elaborate, with poetic epitaphs. And some tell only the name of the deceased with a date for the birth and the death. Often, the death dates are not yet carved in place–even though the death occurred twenty years ago. Why? Could the family not afford the carving of the date? Are there no family members left who know or care about the closure of a person’s life span?
I thought about how some individuals present themselves in life. Big cars. McMansions. Silk ties. Titles. Wealth.
And I thought about how these individuals spend enormous amounts of money to place a monument to themselves (or their family does it) for others to gaze upon and stand in awe. There is nothing wrong with that. A person who worked hard…earned a great deal of money (hopefully honestly) is entitled to remind those left behind of how important he or she was. Again, there is nothing wrong with any of that.
See what I mean:
But what I sometimes find when I roam the graveyards of the rural cemeteries are headstones that are humble and sorrowful. I find that a fair number of families simply cannot afford a fancy headstone or expensive laser etching of names and dates. I came upon one the other day that caused me to pause. I tried to walk on, but I was drawn back to the small stone. I couldn’t tell what material it was made from but the lettering on the face broke my heart. Here was a headstone for two boys who lived and died in the 1940’s. Neither of them made it past two years of age. But the lettering was handmade. I don’t believe that this was on purpose. I felt sure that the parents, the broken-hearted parents, simply could not afford professional lettering.
So they did it themselves.
I compared the two monuments in my mind. One told a story of wealth—one didn’t. The rich man who sits atop his edifice is proud of his accomplishments.
The parents of the two boys are buried a few feet away from them. They sit atop nothing.
But, I’m sure…in my heart, I’m sure…that the parents are proud of their accomplishment. They did what they could to tell the people like me who would one day wander past the boy’s graves, the year of their birth and the year of their untimely death.
Isn’t that really all we need to know? Perhaps the rich man sat on the board of a bank or was a generous philanthropist. But he played with a stick and a ball when he was a child. He swam in a pond. He had a dog. But he went on to “greater” things.
The boy’s were not old enough to help with the hay in the late summer or even go to school. Maybe they slid across an icy pond…without skates? Perhaps they sat on their father’s knee and rubbed the stubble on his cheek. Or heard him read a story.
We’ll never know. There are no details about their short lives.
Only the essentials are known: they were born in a certain year and they died a few years later.
That’s all we know.
I walked on.