Spirituality for Today – March 2010 – Volume 14, Issue 8

Here Lies

By Rev. Raymond Petrucci

As I was passing through the gate to Grove Street Cemetery, my face was slapped by a sharp March wind. The good people of New Haven, Connecticut established these burial grounds in 1796 - the first chartered cemetery in the United States. On November 9, 1797, Martha Townsend became the first to be buried in the soil of Grove Street Cemetery; over fourteen thousand others have joined her since then. The literature noted that among those laid to rest there are such personages as Lyman Beecher, the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Noah Webster, the lexicographer of the first American dictionary, Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, Walter Camp, the father of American football, and Jedidiah Morse, the father of Samuel Morse who invented the telegraph. These are accompanied by many others who did not share such fame. Yet, it was all of those others that had piqued my curiosity.

A photo of Grove Street CemetaryGrove Street Cemetary in New Haven, CT

As the street noises faded away, a shroud of tranquility slowly enveloped me. Passing by small headstones indicating the graves of children, the chalky white slabs of soldiers of long ago, the variety of traditional markers, to great monuments, I became intrigued by the thousands of stories now mute and lost to time. A piece of granite and a simple epitaph make a poor witness to the life of the one reposing beneath. What of their struggles, triumphs, and failures, their joys and their tears, the mark that they and their generation left on life that contributed to the world that is today? Thoughts of Gray's Elegy occupied my mind and the verses paid tribute to the silent throng before my eyes. Undoubtedly, I was passing by the final resting places of saints and sinners, heroes and rogues. What would they say to all of us, still on our earthly journey, about love, forgiveness, compassion, weakness, temptation, responsibility, and all of the virtues and vices to which human nature is liable? This only was certain: I was in the proper place to discover the affirmation of the Lenten theme.

In the middle ground "from dust to dust," how do we best live? The continuing aspect of Lent calls us to "repent and believe in the Gospel." Considering the complex enigma that is the upright beast named man, the development of a sound conscience and all else that speaks of the divine in him and her is the most noble work to be done. We bear within our being the terrible power of free will. Matching reason and desire to produce the good defines the labor of a lifetime. And for this task, God has placed his trust in us. We dare not treat this commission lightly. In the words of the eighteenth century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre, "God himself has told us that God wishes things which do not happen because man does not wish them! Thus the rights of man are immense, and his greatest misfortune is to be unaware of them." To this end of giving good service to the Creator in this temporary engagement of life on earth, we find our fulfillment.

Pure was thy life; its bloody close
Hath placed thee with the sons of light,
Among the noble host of those
Who perished in the cause of Right.

- William Cullen Bryant
The Death of Lincoln

The day was growing late and I had learned much from my sojourn among my still companions. I wished that the gift of my life might become a gift to all those who also occupy my time. With the final parting, how will a life be remembered? There are many whose deaths are long lamented and others whose demise release a thunderous round of applause. The time spent in that cemetery on Grove Street and the Lent being experienced this year has invigorated me to probe more intently the mixture of mind, body, and spirit that is my self and to seek to grow in humanity and holiness for the benefit of God and neighbor. The declining sun marked each grave in lengthening shadows and I raised a toast to them all, my calm hosts, and prayed that they may share the love eternal that was meant by the Author of their lives to be their destiny.

Reflecting on the day I concluded that Ash Wednesday in its sober dust was not so far away and Easter with its eternal promise of resurrection is nearer still. On taking my leave, I, in my mortal state, gazed behind to what lies ahead, but within my soul I looked beyond it.