In Memoriam

PETER A. JAY

April 04, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE. — Havre de Grace.-- On a little hill between our house and the barn, there's an old graveyard where lie several Wilsons, members of the family that was farming the place almost 200 years ago.

The oldest stone marks the grave of William Wilson, who died in 1806 at the age of 64. Nearby are stones with the names of Elizabeth and Charlotte Wilson, who died in 1829 and 1871 respectively, aged 52 and 92. I presume they were William's unmarried daughters. There are other stones, including some of the small ones usually used for the graves of children, but the inscriptions are no longer legible.

The graveyard had been untended for years when my father bought the farm in 1946. It had been fenced to keep out livestock, so trees and brush had grown up, concealing the stones. As a child I used to tunnel into the honeysuckle to trace the chiseled names with my fingers and wonder about the people whose remains lay below me.

Their time seemed to me then to have been almost unimaginably long ago. William Wilson was born a year before Thomas Jefferson and died when Jefferson was in his second term as president. I used to wonder how old he was when he first saw the farm and what it looked like then.

In recent years I've partially cleared the graveyard, but I'm not sure that was a good idea. Whatever I do, the stones will continue to crumble and sink into the earth. As a cemetery in disrepair is an unsettling sight to some people, perhaps it would be better if the blanket of underbrush were allowed to grow back to cover this illustration of human impermanence.

If some Wilson relatives were still around to bring flowers, straighten tilted stones and clip back the insistent Virginia creeper, it would be another story. But because graveyards are really maintained for the living and not for the dead, when the living don't come around any more it's probably time to let the wind, the rain and the fast-growing vines have their way.

I did hang a bluebird box on a sassafras tree that's grown up among the stones, and for several years birds have been nesting there. That was probably a greater contribution to the atmosphere of the place than any of my brush-cutting.

When we bury our relatives and friends, we place our memorials with the idea that they will last "forever." But of course they won't. The 186 years that William Wilson's headstone has remained standing is probably better than average.

In mid-March this year, Sun columnist Tom Horton took several friends to deserted Holland Island, a low-lying outpost in the lower Chesapeake. I was fortunate enough to be included, and I found the visit a metaphor for the transitory nature of all human existence.

There are several graveyards on the island, with stones placed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many inscriptions are still clear, and here and there daffodils still grow. But the island, once a thriving community, is eroding away, and within a single human lifetime will surely be gone entirely, along with the graves and the tombstones.

Does that matter? Or, to put it another way, should we do anything about that? Should there be a government program to save these cemeteries? And is there a broad obligation to protect all old burial places from destruction, whether brought about by backhoes and bulldozers or by the more subtle and less readily regulated forces of wind and water, weeds and weather?

Meaning no disrespect to William Wilson or to George Todd, who died on Holland Island in 1908 and is buried there, or to any other person whose mortal coil is decomposing beneath our feet, I doubt it. We're best remembered by those who knew us. When they're gone, we really are dust.

Robert Penn Warren had it right, in a poem called "Sunset Walk in Thaw-Time in Vermont:"

When my son is an old man, and I have not,/ For some fifty years, seen his face, and, if seeing it,/ Would not even be able to guess what name it wore, what/ Blessing should I ask for him?/

That some time, in thaw-season, at dusk, standing/ At woodside and staring/ Red-westward, with the sound of moving water/ In his ears, he/ Should thus, in that future moment, bless,/ Forward into that future's future,/ An old man who, as he is mine, had once/ Been his small son./

For what blessing may a man hope for but/ An immortality in/ The loving vigilance of death?/

Naturally, most of us do what we can to take care of the crumbling or tide-threatened tombstones we come across. Making an effort seems right and proper. And perhaps it's not important that whatever we do to preserve those old stones, we're really doing for ourselves and not for those we never knew whose graves they mark.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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