Learning Life from the American Cemetery

I was saddened recently to see the state of one of the historic cemeteries in my neighborhood of Georgetown, of which I became aware in a post by Topher Matthews over at The Georgetown Metropolitan. The Mount Zion United Methodist Church/Female Union Band Cemetery is located on 27th and Q Streets NW, here in the nation’s capital, and as you can see from the photograph is in rather a sorry state; a similar situation exists at the Holy Rood Cemetery on Wisconsin Avenue, just outside of Georgetown proper but owned by Georgetown University, which has let the place run to ruin. While graveyards may not be, for many of us, a place where we care to linger, their continued existence in large American cities serves both an educational and a moral purpose, worthy of our preservation.

One of the features of the urban landscape in many parts of the country is the old church graveyard, something which  European visitors have observed to me as being a particularly unusual historical survival. While cemeteries and churchyards containing graves are common in rural locations on both continents, in many cities in the United States and in the Old World beginning in the 19th century, they disappeared from downtown areas by being paved over or moved into the suburbs. Oftentimes this led to the creation of large, landscaped parks specially set aside for the purpose, such as the Montjuich Cemetery along Barcelona’s waterfront, or Highgate Cemetery in London.

There are certainly many logical, practical reasons why cemeteries are no longer located in the midst of inner cities, though their rarity is really not such a new development as is their near-total absence. The burial of most of the dead outside of city centers has always been a feature of human civilization. We can look for example at the magnificently decorated Egyptian tombs located in remote deserts; the various Mosaic laws regarding burial contained in the Torah; the funeral practices of the Ancient Romans, including the building of the catacombs as virtual cities of the dead; or the attempts by medieval towns during the Plague to keep the living and healthy away from the dead and dying, by sending the latter far away to die or be buried.

Yet even though most people were not buried in the centers of the towns in which they lived, there were always some cemeteries located in the hearts of our cities, whether inside of churches and hospitals themselves, or located on their grounds. Last week, for example, I wrote about some religious art created for a cemetery in Belgium, which was considered to be so exceptional that pilgrimages to visit it were encouraged by Rome; unfortunately, the art and the cemetery disappeared during the Napoleonic period. That disappearance, along with the disappearance of countless other urban gravesites from downtown areas, is a phenomenon that deserves to be questioned, for there does seem to be a rather curious political and sociological coalescence which has lead both to the removal of the graveyard from the city, and the rising tide of secularism.

Beginning with the Enlightenment, continuing under the development of secular, civil law in both its American and European versions, and finally through the coming to power of various strains of socialism, not only has religion been pushed out of the public square, but so has Death itself. The worship of God has been replaced, initially by the worship of man, and finally by the worship of the self. We do not want to be reminded of our mortality, by seeing the graves of those who were unable to escape their own, when there is so much hedonistic pleasure and self-indulgence which we can have today without giving a thought to what will happen tomorrow. The reader is certainly welcome to disagree with me, but I do wonder whether the removal and neglect of our cemeteries in urban centers is not one of the best indicators of the horrific level of selfishness we have sunk to in the present day.

For those of us who live and work and cities, where the focus tends to be on materialistic concerns such as the obtaining of wealth or power for personal gain, the visual presence of a cemetery can be a powerful witness of the inevitability of Death. No matter how successful we may become, in the end all will turn to rot and ruin; there is no way to prevent this. While focusing on that fact too much can lead to nihilism, or sitting in the closet cutting yourself whilst reading the “Twlight” saga, I believe there is something very beneficent about taking the time to remember that man is dust, and unto dust he shall return. A society which cannot face Death, cannot face old age, nor physical frailty, nor physical deformity, nor ugliness, nor poverty, nor suffering, with anything approaching charity, decency, or empathy.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being successful, or having nice things, or wanting to look your best. Yet it is the spirit with which one views these things that we need to take issue, for none of it is going to keep Death away from the door, when the time comes. Death is, after all, the great leveler of all things, and Americans would be well-served by being reminded of this fact on a more regular basis.  I wonder how much of our time, talents, and treasure we waste trying to delude ourselves into thinking that we are never going to grow old and die: no doubt the reasonable dollar figure would be staggering.

Turning back to where we began, the very sorry state of these two graveyards in Georgetown certainly deserves our criticism. It is disrespectful to the memory of those who are buried there, but also indicative of a very unhealthy attitude toward Death on the part of those charged with the upkeep of these places.  And particularly given the fact that these are religious, rather than civic cemeteries, their respective religious communities should be scandalized by this inexcusable negligence.

On a more personal note, I would suggest that for my readers who are willing, take advantage of a visit to the cemetery you pass on the way to work or school, even if you do not have any connection with the people buried there. For one day, you will have a very obvious connection with them, whether you like it or not. Reminding yourself of that fact from time to time, even if only by a brief stroll through the grounds, may go a long way toward helping you gain some perspective, and a healthy dose of realism to counteract the bitter pill of contemporary selfishness.

Some of the toppled gravestones at Holy Rood Cemetery, Georgetown

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