Yesterday I attended Mass at the local cemetery and then took a while to wander the graves, reading the headstones. It was very moving, reading the names of people long dead, seeing the dates of their lives marked out. Some lived well into their seventies or eighties, others barely lasted a few days, but each was laid to rest here in this peaceful piece of property. Some were marked with identifications like “U.S. Army” or “SSRGT U.S. Marine Corps,” together with the war they served in, if any. Most of them had small flags stuck into the ground next to them. Many were double markers for husbands and wives, complete with the date of their marriage.
The overwhelming idea that struck me again and again was not the fact of death, but of life. Here were people who had lived, bled, loved, and died, who had run the race and fought the fight. Here their lives were summarized in a few names and dates, and yet I could imagine or picture them as clearly as if I had read their biographies, if not quite in the details then at least in the feeling, the impression of their lives. Life in all its complexities, struggles, joys, and pains was made manifest to me in a way it seldom has. There are few places where the reality of life is made more tangible than in a cemetery. It felt to me like I could endure all the pain and suffering that is to come better for knowing that these resting souls had done so before me.
As I walked along, I was remembering something that Abraham Lincoln said once. He and his wife were driving through a cemetery, and he was so struck by the tranquility and beauty of the place that he had the driver pause for a while. “Mary,” he said. “You are younger than I, and you will outlast me. When I die, lay my remains in a place like this.”