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Elegy in a Country Graveyard

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Apologies to anyone who finds these cemetery posts a little shady and dark. I don't mean them to be. I'm always looking for ways to better appreciate the gift of life, and I find powerful motivation for living well in contemplating the too-short and often tragic lives of others. The route I run every day, weather permitting, leads me to a tiny Methodist cemetery, where a little white clapboard church once stood. I loved that church, loved the phoebes who nested in the foyer, loved its weathered whitewashed siding and its raccoon-soiled pews, and I hated to see it razed and burned down. That's what a township has to do when a building is beyond repair and kids are going there to drink and raise hell and in doing so probably fall through the rotting floor. All that's left of the church is a dip in the hilltop. The scorched tops of the cedars that stood closest to it tell of the fire that consumed its clapboard, its wooden pews, its probably bat-graced belfry. How the two trees lived through it I'll never know. I figured they'd die right away, but they haven't; they just keep right on going. I don't think they're growing any more, but they're alive, and that's something.

I think a lot about Osborn and Adaline Congleton, who lost their son Thomas at age 25, and their first daughter Ida at only six months. Ida B. was born the day after Phoebe, albeit 119 years earlier. Like me, Ida's mother carried her in the heat of summer. I know what that's like, but I can't imagine having to say goodbye to her the next January, when you've barely gotten the chance to know her.

What more defining events could Osborn and Adaline have experienced? How did they go on? Like the twin cedars, scarred by fire, they just did. 

Our Loved Ones Await Us

As Robert Frost, who had a terribly tragic life filled with loss, wrote, 

"In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on."

There is nothing quite so clarifying as standing at the grave of a child who never got to grow up and have her own children, a child who never got the chance to delight her parents by becoming a person in her own right. To think of Liam and Phoebe, who but for advances in medicine, might already be done with their lives…well, it’s hard to go on feeling sorry for oneself when you stand by a little obelisk, toppled by frost heaves, and you turn it over, for it’s just light enough to move, and puzzle over the names and dates until it sinks in on you just what happened here on your road in a house long gone, 117 years ago. You look around at the young cutover woods and realize there were farmsteads and houses all along it, and women giving birth in back bedrooms and people falling ill and not getting better, even the sweet young girls and the youngest dearest babies.

Standing at the grave of Catherine and Jane King, who both left their parents at ages 14 and 10 in the second week of January, 1892 (doubtless from influenza), I resolved to make something worthwhile of the day. 

I don't know what happened to Jane, Emma, Delia and Grace Long, but I can only surmise, from the miniature headstone that remembers them, that they died very young. 

 Living in the 20th and now 21st centuries, we have been spared so much, and we simply cannot realize it, cannot carry through the thought of how incredibly blessed we are for more than a few minutes at a time. We fuss and fume about the tiny indignities; the slights and inconsiderations that life heaps on everyone. We let ourselves be consumed by small concerns, and forget to look around at the abundance that surrounds us, to listen to the laughter of our healthy children, to bury our noses in their sweet hair and thank God or grace or modern medicine or whatever combined forces that have worked together to allow us to watch them grow up.

  So I visit this cemetery every morning in clouds and rain and mist, in snow and in rare sunshine, and each morning I choose another stone to contemplate. I piece together a little story and so often it is of parents grieving for their young ones. And when I’ve wiped the tears away I turn back to the gravel road and kick my feet up as high in the air as I can (which is not very high any more, but high enough).  I stretch the live, strong muscles I have been given to use and set off down the road for home, resolved to make something of the day.


Seeing the title of your blog (and before reading it), I immediately scooted back mentally to my undergrad days in English lit. I recalled Thomas Gray's "Elegy written in a country churchyard."
Albeit the verse is of another time, but its sentiments and yours share that common theme of wondering on mortality and immortality.
We live very near a large and still used cemetery. I love to read the plaques that mark each grave. I wonder at lives lived, lives ended. You can tell just a bit of something if someone dies young. I see graves that clearly mark young men killed in combat--many Vietnam era graves. It makes me both sad and content--content to be a part of this grand tapestry of life. The only complaint I have about this cemetery is that they ban walking dogs there. Why, oh why? Were I buried there, I would want life to continue atop me--for dogs to run and dig, for chipmunks and squirrels to burrow.
Ah--see, so early in the day you have me musing.

What a beautifully written post, Julie. I agree; graveyards tell us a lot about life, especially life in an earlier time when so many did not survive to adulthood.

I recently read a really interesting book about cemeteries: The American Resting Place: Four Hundred Years of History through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds , by Marilyn Yalom. I highly recommend it.

I'm too moved to comment, except to say Julie, this is one of your best.

No apologies needed here for the post; to the contrary -- thank-you! 'Very appropriately reflective and challenging us for perspective!

Lovely words, Julie.

This is lovely. I too like visiting cemetaries..perhaps because it does make me feel alive and thankful, and as you quote, "it goes on".

I'm never speechless, but this is about as close as I get. I wish I could let go and put the kind of emotion into my writing that you do.

I've always been fascinated by cemetaries... beautiful post, Julie. Thanks.

Thought you might like this, sort of applicable to the thoughts in your post and a commentary on what's happening today.....

And, so sorry to science chimp a moving story, but the really awful influenza outbreak was in 1918-1919. Flu was certainly around in 1892, and could have carried off those children, but I would wonder about something more common but equally lethal, like whooping cough, or scarlet fever, or diptheria. It doesn't really matter, though.

Posted by Anonymous January 20, 2011 at 9:13 AM

I also am fortunate enough to have a country graveyard just within a few steps of our old country home.
Visits there, when we first moved into the old homestead, acquainted me with names I began to recognize on street signs stringing the small villages one to another--the families who settled this area, then raised the houses and crops and their (often) many children here.
It's a great reminder of what once was.
And, as you suggest, a great motivator to actively live for as long as we're able.

Thank you, Julie, for this moving call to life with all its joys and sorrows. Words fail me. Again, thank you.

Posted by Diane Borders January 20, 2011 at 12:27 PM

Beautiful post. I leave on Saturday to go to a country where they still lose their children young. To work in a center for malnourished children helping to feed and care for them. One week out of 52 and some people I know are calling me a hero. I am not. The heroes are the ones who do it 52 weeks a year.

Thank you for sharing these stories, Julie. We have lovely cemeteries in my rural area as well and I, too, am enthralled by the stories in the stone. In fact, the land I just purchased has a single sandstone marker, 200 years old, tucked away in a grove. Henry Hayward, bless his heart, only had a chance to live on this beautiful piece of land for 5 years. His family sold the property shortly after and left him there alone.

I find cemeteries fascinating as well. Each stone tells a history with simple dates and a few written words and like you, I can't help but wonder how they lived their lives.
Brilliant photos in the fog!

How beautifully you write x Over the pond here in an ancient Dorset village we have the sweetest old graveyard.Some date back to the 15th century and some that old are still legible! There is one to a fine lady who had 44 children and grandchildren I assume alot were grandchildren gulp!! I touch her tomb and utter up a prayer to her,the patron saint of mothers I call her lol when I am frazzled with just my twins!
Further up the lane is an area where the burials moved to when the tiny churchyard filled up and thats also incredibly peaceful.The village here is pretty unaltered really over the centuries,many cottages have gone but those that remain are reminders of those gone before us.
It reminds us all to count our blessings every day which is no bad thing x x

Love love love this.

My husband just informed me that waaaay back in the woods on a private farm where he has hunted from time to time (WITH permission!) is an old, small graveyard. When hunting season is over and before mosquito season has begun, he's going to take me.

Posted by holly-the-person January 23, 2011 at 12:24 PM

I so enjoyed seeing the pictures of this cemetery as it reminds me of one where I was born in northern Ohio; Westfield Twp. to be exact. Our church was destroyed by a tornado on Palm Sunday in 1965 (I have forgotten the correct year) and all that is left are the grave markings, including several of my family. I too like to walk about and read the old stones. Something comforting about that. Thanks again.Gretchen

Posted by Anonymous January 26, 2011 at 6:53 AM
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