The priest raises his ash covered thumb to my forehead. “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return. Repent and believe the Gospel,” he says, making the sign of the cross.
“to dust thou shalt return”
The campus was home to the oldest cemetery in the county. One afternoon, as I was wandering in the woods, something drew me to that cemetery.
What is it that draws me to cemeteries? Maybe it’s that I’ve never had a grave to visit, my own ancestors and friends buried thousands of miles away. Maybe it’s my love of history and tradition. Maybe my curiosity. I don’t know. But that afternoon something was drawing me to the old cemetery.
It was fall. Everything was dead. Leaves had lost their crunch and covered the decaying graves with a layer of visible decay.
I climbed over the wall, where a little modern sign marks “Gove Cemetery, 1785.” I wandered to a far off corner, over the crest of the hill. I’d never been this far back before. A flag had fallen to the ground. I picked it up and planted it next to the old Captain’s headstone. When I stood up I saw the old cemetery entrance marked with two tall stones, tucked away in the corner farthest from our modern road.
I slowly, almost reluctantly, I made my way to the old entrance. I paused again and again, my mind wandering back to the place of the dead. Largely neglected, weeds surrounding, stones tipped at precarious angles, engravings faded. What is life? What is the purpose of life? “84 years of age” was written in one stone. Now what remains but a weathered stone, a lump in the ground, a faint memory whispering through the once farmed forest?
I reached the entrance. The wood gate was broken, rotting on the ground. Stepping over it, I found myself on an old road, if it can be called such: a path of saplings cutting through a forest, a pattern of breaks in old walls, a heap of stones leveling a gully. I stopped on the ridge above that gully and saw the heap of stones for what they had been: a bridge. Does anything we make last?
My thoughts wander back ten years to another graveyard, another ruined road. They were older, two thousand years older. Roman buildings lasted longer than the makeshift farm buildings of New Hampshire settlers. Longer, but not forever. The Roman headstones were more impressive, more legible. But the bodies were the same. The stone sarcophagus prevented the lumpy ground. But the memories were further removed. No one remains from 2000 years ago to tell an old story, to put flowers on an ancestor’s grave, to look with love on an old headstone.
The grand city and the small farm alike are gone, ruined, lost in history. The king and the farmer alike decay in the ground. And 200 years from now . . . where will my grave be? Will my memory stir through the grass? Will there be a path to the place I am buried? Or will it be forgotten, the town near the cemetery covered in overgrown forest?