“Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite, to exist only for a day. No, no, man was made for immortality.” – Abraham Lincoln
I visited a cemetery recently in the Sierra foothills of Northern California, in a gold-rush era mining town. The cemetery headstones gave but a scant sense of the remains interred there. A child dead at three years from some accident or disease. A young women buried before her 25th birthday, most likely dead of childbirth. Men who served in the Civil War, the First World War, the Second, or Korea, and even one private who fought for the Confederate States of America.
James Elliott’s marker said he served on the U.S.S. Indiana and I later found that the Indiana fought in Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Saipan, the Battle of the Philippine Sea and Okinawa. And the body of Hettie Mary Morgan, Yeoman 2, U.S. Navy, World War I rests in that cemetery, one of only 13,000 American women who served in the First World War. Remembering and honoring the legacy of those men and women – their contributions to our civilization, our way of life, our democracy and our freedom – is, after all, the highest purpose of Memorial Day.
These men and women came from elsewhere, as told on weathered markers, from England, from Germany, from Maine, Ohio and Kentucky, searching for a better life, opportunity, a chance for happiness or gold, or perhaps adventure and a new start. They lived as soldiers, sailors, miners, fathers, sons, mothers and daughters. A family of five rest together in their plot bordered by concrete broken by tree roots and decades of frost heave. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Those with the ability, gave their beloved elaborate markers, carved in stone, so that they should never be forgotten, while the resting places of the poor or criminal or friendless were marked with simple boards, long since indecipherable, or the many small plain markers of the “unknowns.”
The message is in the eye of the beholder and when visiting the grave of a friend or family member, there is a richness, a story, the memories of who that person was, their life, their hopes, their mistakes and a perception of that being. But after a generation or two, that richness – the stories possessed only by those who knew the dearly departed – goes silent, those that knew the story also gone.
The cynical, the despondent, the visitor without faith may wander, reading markers, mulling the futility of life, the dreams dashed, the hopes sundered, the sorrow of those left behind and the tragedy of life on Earth, a life of the flesh. A life as Macbeth said it, “…that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.”
But there is more to this story. People of faith, believe there is more, that death is not the end, that there is meaning and continuity and purpose in a life – that not only has each individual contributed to the life of the family, the society and the nation, but has continuity as self, as a life, a being, a spirit, that the body and the life it serves is but one stage in the continuation of the individual as well as of humanity.
Abraham Lincoln said: “Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite, to exist only for a day. No, no, man was made for immortality.”
And so there is hope and there is life and promise and a future. As such, those remains buried beneath the soil marked with loving inscriptions have served the purpose of the beings that animated them. They are worn-out husks, cast away, honored as is proper, but the spirit continues, life goes on and the future stretches out to infinity.