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, even a park, if one insists on being public-spirited. But a cemetery, strewn with awkwardly shaped tombstones, where even a picnic seems inappropriate? Let the dead bury the dead. Land is for the living.

But I don’t think so. These days, now that I’m past middle age and on the downward slope myself, I am ever more mindful of the need for reflection, the need to be forced to stop, to pause, to consider, to contemplate, to recognize that this life is fleeting and charged with meaning only if we have something meaningful to offer.

It is so easy to get lost in the daily details, in the job, the kids’ achievements, the bills to be paid, the friends to impress. It’s so easy to think that the promotion I can get only by working twice as hard is more important than that elderly aunt who just wants to tell the same tired old stories again and again. It’s so tempting to believe that the recognition we get for our writing or our sales or our good taste in clothes, books, or household design is the real thing and worth striving for. It’s so much easier to invest in life insurance and health care than to acknowledge that ultimately we have zero control over when, where, or how we will go.

Crouching in that cemetery, trying vainly to protect myself from the knife-like wind, I understood vividly that just as it was for Martha Batson (fifty-two, my exact age) or Mary Harding (twenty-seven: oh, my life when I was twenty-seven—so full of promise and possibility!), this life is my only chance. It has to count. It has to mean something.

There is a reason that we create memorials to our dead, that we hallow the ground in which they lie, that we “visit” them, even though we know they aren’t there. It is because we know they are both our ancestors and our torchbearers. They came before us and they go before us, leading the way, showing the path. They remind us of who we are and where we are going. In the finality of their tombstones, their names—etched years or even centuries before—call us to order. They make us pause on the treadmill and ask ourselves the eternal questions.

I love cemeteries for the lives they hold and the promise they proclaim. I love them because they invite us to be conscious of each passing moment, as if it could be our last. As if it could really be our last. And I love them for the way they remind us that while this life is the only one we have, it is also the gateway to the eternal mystery of the life beyond.

Martha Batson. Mary Harding. And I. Do everything in view of eternity. There is really no other way to live.

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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Published in the 2011-04-08 issue: View Contents
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