Hallowed Ground

In the Presence of the Dead

While visiting my sister Mary and her husband recently in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I saw a beautiful cemetery and asked Mary to pull the car over so I could take a photo. It was f-r-e-e-z-i-n-g. I cannot remember ever having been so cold, but perhaps my years in India have dimmed my memory or my resilience.

The wind tore in off the Atlantic. When I stepped out of the car, it cut through my coat and gloves and nearly lifted me into the air. I was sure my camera would freeze. But the picture I got captured something of the cold loneliness, finality, and grey certainty of death, and also the youth of so many of those who died in the nineteenth century: the child lost at two, the wife at twenty-seven. 

The Harding and the Batson gravestones even counted age in months as well as years. In those days, before antibiotics and vaccinations, a simple fever or a cough that hung on could raise fears of death and awareness of the precariousness and preciousness of each day.

That cemetery is today prime property: overlooking the sea, on a main road, with views in all directions, close to town yet not crowded. My sister and brother-in-law once hoped to buy a place with even a glimpse of the ocean, but there was no way they could afford one. So the cemetery seemed not just an anachronism but something of a joke. At Portsmouth prices, what a waste of space! Such a perfect setting for a hotel, an expensive restaurant,...

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About the Author

Jo McGowan, a Commonweal columnist, writes from Deradoon, India.