Some people enjoy meandering through cemeteries, especially old ones, and ponder the tombstones. A few have made a hobby of gravestone rubbing, which I understand is a bit controversial—some states have made the practice illegal. I certainly can’t claim that visiting cemeteries is one of my pastime pleasures. I don’t recall ever scheduling a recreational trip to the graveyard on my day off or stopping by on my lunch hour to take in a few headstones. Actually, doing so may be helpful in many ways, but it hasn’t shown up on my to-do list.
A couple weeks ago, though, on a rather brisk though sunny Saturday morning, that’s just where I found myself. Since our mom died two and a half years ago, my two brothers, my sister, and I have made a point to get together around her birthday to visit the cemetery. Earlier this year, our dad died and he, too, is buried in the same cemetery, though in a different section. We first went to dad’s grave to see if the headstone had been placed yet. It hadn’t. The foundation was poured, but next to the cold slab was a simple tin marker with his name, year of birth, year of death. That was a disappointment.
Although the wind chilled the skin, the sun added enough warmth that we wanted to linger, wander a bit among the neighboring gravesites. It’s a sobering exercise. A name, a brief statement maybe, and dates on either side of a life-summarizing hyphen. Some stones elicit curiosity. A husband who died a couple weeks after his spouse of several decades—from a broken heart? A couple who died the same day in the early 1900s. What kind of tragedy took them together?
A couple rows south of my dad’s grave is what has to be the most dismal section in the entire place. Tiny sites, one after another, marking doleful spots where infants were laid to rest. My heart ached coming upon a couple places marked by the same kind of temporary tin tag as at dad’s plot. Not because the deaths were recent. No, they occurred in the 1950s. “Were mom and dad too impoverished to buy a marker?” I mused. “Perhaps they were simply too grief-stricken and couldn’t bring themselves to return?” Whatever the reason, there were the markers—a faint last name following “Infant,” a fading date that in another sixty years will be illegible. Time was slowly erasing any testimony to the child’s brief appearance on the planet.
Perhaps not quite as sad, but nearly so and every bit as thought-provoking, was the burial place of “Infant Leeth” born and died in 1955. No hyphen. In all likelihood, the parents have joined their child in eternity, so we can’t ask what happened. Nor can we learn the story behind the oddity of the tree swallowing their child’s marker. Did the grieving, distraught parents plant a little sapling in memory of their little one? Or did one of the myriads of maple seeds just happen to land a couple feet from “Infant Leeth” and take root? More unsettling to consider, though, is why no one noticed the encroaching trunk as the years rolled by. When the first tentacle from the maple’s root system made its way to the stone, why didn’t some forward-looking loved one see to it that the marker was protected? Or was there no loved one to visit, to object to the trespass, to protect “Infant Leeth”? Why didn’t an observant, thoughtful, compassionate caretaker, seeing what was sure to take place in years to come, take the tree out? Does anyone remember this little one? Questions without answers. Once again, time eventually will have its way.
A visit to the cemetery is a melancholy exercise. Conducting my share of funerals over the years has taken me to plenty of them, even if I don’t visit “recreationally.” I usually leave thinking about the hyphen—reflecting on that of the deceased, pondering my own. Before I came upon the infant section, that’s where my thoughts were going—the hyphen. The confrontation with “Infant Leeth” sent me in another direction.
In his unique approach to this life and beyond, the writer of Ecclesiastes records his observations “under the sun”—that is, the realm of our existence on the planet. He certainly would reference “Infant Leeth” in one of those:
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.Ecclesiastes 9:5 (emphasis added)
For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!Ecclesiastes 2:16 (emphasis added)
One of the harsh realities of life “under the sun” is that eventually time will erase the memory of virtually all who once lived on the planet. Oh, it may take a few generations for most, perhaps a few hundred years for a select few. An even smaller number seem to be immortal. But after all, do we really remember Julius Caesar, the man, or merely his works and image?
This could be quite depressing, I know. Not my intention, though. See, here’s the thing. Time may erase all earthly memory of “Infant Leeth” and every other person represented on a tombstone, even if their marker isn’t swallowed up by a maple tree. The same writer who lamented man’s forgetfulness under the sun concluded his treatise on life thus:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.Ecclesiastes 12:13-14
If no one else remembers your life and how you lived, God does. And one of the prophets of old penned these hopeful words for those who heed Ecclesiastes’ advice:
Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. “They shall be mine,” says the Lord of hosts, “in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.”Malachi 3:16-17
In other words, in a special “book of remembrance” God records the lives of those who fear Him, that is, they know and trust God as He has revealed Himself. Those He remembers in this way are His eternal, treasured possession—they’ll never be forgotten in time or eternity. Time may erode the engraving on their tombstone; a tree’s expanding trunk may swallow up the last vestige of their life on earth.