Inside the black, iron fence fronting Holy Sepulcher cemetery, a serene landscape is stirred only by the flitting of birds and fitful breezes rustling the vegetation. Though it is late morning, I see no one else visiting the graves of loved ones. It’s a lonely, deserted place now, but it wasn’t always this way. In times past, family members visited regularly to refresh the soil and plant new flowers. Today the younger generation is busier or perhaps more realistic and less inclined to perpetuate the practice. More sentimental and emotionally committed to tradition, the elderly persist until either they can’t or their own time is up.
Invariably, in those solitary and peaceful surroundings, a morbid fascination sends me meandering between the silent graves, smelling damp earth mounded here and there. I pause to read headstones with chiseled inscriptions and sometimes with plasticized pictures of children attached. Like little angels dressed in frilly, white dresses or dark suits, they gaze back with smiling eyes or with heads bowed to hands folded in prayer. The heart-wrenching death of innocent children troubles me and tests the limits of my spiritual beliefs.
Ambling along, I read the names of strangers and I wonder what hopes, fears and dark secrets lie buried with them. Some lived long lives, but most did not. I remember Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” and I’m reminded that some among them may have become future tyrants or, in our times perhaps, violent criminals. Such musings temper my sympathies.
Across Harlem Road from where I stand, I view undulating rows of gravestones that seem to ripple on an ocean of tears shed by countless mourners who once stood before them, many of whom now share that silent world. Surrounding me are similar monuments, some tall and ostentatious, others squat, granite blocks like loyal sentinels, and still others, long-forgotten, often with faded names and dates weathering on flat faces mother earth slowly sucks to her bosom.
Unlike my early years, when myopic youth blurred the mystery of time that ages us overnight, my days are now clearly focused on the specter of my own mortality. I reflect on the last words of a dying Indian chief who said of life: “It is as a spark of the firefly in the night, a breath of the buffalo in the cold winter air …”
Because I’m convinced time is an illusion that should be apparent to anyone past 50, I’m dismayed by the senselessness of man’s wanton cruelty and by his failure to see the folly of lusting after wealth, power and success at any price. Within the space of a yawn, both the rich man and the poor man slumber underground in homes of equal size.
As I wander back to my car, the certain knowledge that death’s patience will one day expire casts a pall over me. Despite that – perhaps because of it – a joke or humorous line will sometimes pop into my mind, such as Woody Allen’s, “I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” And sometimes a chilling thought intrudes, such as the message said to be wrought above a cemetery gate in Palermo, Italy: “We were as you are; you shall be as we are.” Eerily true for other mortals, but – to paraphrase a William Saroyan sentiment – I truly expect that an exception will made in my case.