Nobody and the graveyard raid

October 19, 2016

It was not a very large cemetery, tucked away between the back end of a large brick church and a row of some houses that had seen better days.

 

There were no grand mausoleums, no pigeon-anointed angels atop granite columns, waving their swords and managing to look at the same time fierce and slightly distracted, as though they had just wondered where they had put their car keys.

 

This was a narrow rectangle of graves, 30 or 40 of them, of men, women and children buried during the years between the American Revolution and two decades before the American Civil War.

 

The church of which these sheep had been the flock had long ago moved to larger and more grandiose quarters a few blocks away. It has since changed its name. The old building is gone. All that remains are the stones, and the whispers of the names they bore.

 

I was there, as usual, because there was bad news. A number of the headstones seem to have been broken, cast down shattered on the grass the night before my visit by person or persons unknown.

 

Probably the latter. Thugs like that rarely act alone, as they need one another to crank their courage up.

 

Plainly, this was not the first time it had happened. While many of the broken surfaces shone white and new, as many more were old, weathered. It seems that these dead have been an affront to someone for a very long time.

 

It is hard to imagine why. The victims were all, by now, a thin stratum of darker soil in the surrounding clay and shale. On the stones, most of their names had been eroded by time and weather into vague ciphers. On some, the names were plain, but the dates, those points on the continuum between which the stories of their lives unfolded, were obliterated.

 

On those that are legible, the dates gave a much more careful accounting of that time than we are used to in the late 20th century. Joseph Heagy, we learn, for example, died in 1844, having lived exactly 63 years, seven months, and 17 days.

 

Another stone gives a hint of what may have been a wrenching story. Mary, wife of Ludnik, died on Sept. 14 of 1804. Ludnik, still at her side, died two days later.

 

These are people, I thought as I walked in the perfect autumn day, who lived in the tumult between the birth of the nation and the times that nearly tore it apart. It was a time of high passion, but they and their passions were by now dust and whispers. So why the anger? Why the fractured markers?

 

I stopped and looked again over the field of fallen stones, amused at myself. This had nothing to do with the vanished remains, or the people who had once worn the names etched in the marble and shale. Here, I had assumed the culprits had a reason. I had assumed that the spate of vandalism had been the result of something reasoned through, a solution to a problem.

 

Silly me.

 

This was, I reminded myself, a simple skirmish between order and chaos.

 

It was a fight between life and the vast, endless darkness on either side of it.

 

I suppose there is no better reminder of that final blackness than a tombstone, standing there solid, part of which bore the inscription “The Last Brick Wall you will ever hit.” Maybe that is where the anger comes from, a sudden despair that your brief moments above ground will mean nothing and your end even less.

 

I tucked my notebook in my hip pocket and stowed my pen, walking back toward my car. My anger at the vandalism had not abated, but alongside had grown a little understanding, and perhaps a little sympathy. The idea that you do not matter and will not be missed when you go is a painful one, I know.

 

If kicking over memorials to the forgotten dead is the best idea you can come up with as a stance against that great, crushing anonymity, you had better get used to being a nobody.

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