The Living and the Dead
One of the peculiarities that native Rhode Islanders perhaps do not even notice about their state — at least in the East Bay — is the proliferation of historical cemeteries, tucked into suburban and urban corners alike, here and there, such as this unkempt one on Water St., in Portsmouth:
George Carlin used to have a bit in which he suggested that all cemeteries and golf courses be sacrificed in the name of affordable housing. Taking up the economic calamity of such a move would be beyond my purpose, here, and it may be sufficient, anyway, to warn against preventing the intrusion of mortality and heritage into our daily routines.
What might remain of bodies interred some hundred and fifty years ago, I do not know, when even the stone etchings have faded such as to make reading difficult. With the aid of a type-written sheet of paper, sheathed in plastic on the site, however, the visitor can associate some names with the stones, thus parting with an explanation, upon turning back toward East Main Rd., for Child St. (Although, whether George Franklin, Jonathan, Lidia, William Henry, Joseph, or Harriet merited the honorarium is lost to history. Perhaps the honored Child lies beneath one of the faded, illegible stones, or perhaps the entire clan was the namesake.) Erasing the dead from the landscape would be akin to naming every road by its place and purpose, just as Portsmouth has East Main, West Main, joined by Union, with Middle right where one would expect.
In a faded and indistinct way, these daily encounters with our foregoers bring the same lessons that are incidental to Michael Morse’s work as an EMT:
A few hours later, I returned to the ER with somebody else, but took the time to visit them. He was lucid now, she smiled as I shook his hand and deflected the genuine thanks he offered, saying the usual “it’s my job” things. I don’t remember what caused his confusion, his blood work was way out of whack, IV fluids and whatever else they gave him at the hospital worked wonders. He was funny, and kind, and appreciative. So was she. I was happy to have helped them. It was a “good” call.
I saw his picture on the obituary page two days later. He died that night. At least he walked out of the place he raised his family under his own power, and into whatever existence waits.
Two years later, another call brings him to take the she along the same path. Michael recalls her graciousness when he’d attended her husband’s wake and how a certain respect had attached to his occupational proximity to the living’s passing on to death.
Of course, we’re all, every day, dealing with people on their way to the grave, gathering associations and memories, making impressions. Whoever’s names the addresses of the living bear, the blocks, the towns, the regions that they inhabit carry the sense of them, even if that sense will pass with us. Let graveyards, then, stand as a reminder that we mark the ground on which we tread no less than the ground in which we lie.
In a recently reprinted column for the Rhode Island Catholic, Bishop Thomas Tobin summarizes a relevant theme in Jesus’ teachings:
The first lesson is the reminder of how foolish it is to accumulate and then depend on material possessions. Remember the parable Jesus told about the rich man who built up huge barns to store his bountiful harvest? The complacent man said to himself, “You have so many things stored up for many years; rest, eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool, this very night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?” Jesus concludes by teaching that we should try to grow rich “in what matters to God.” (Luke 12:16-21) …
Towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus urged His disciples to be less anxious and more trusting. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear . . . Your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all . . . Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” (Mt 6: 25-34)
Though the annunciations of our existences will dissipate with the wind and water, whether written in stone or in the reflections of those with whom we interact, these things are not all. Tomorrow will take care of itself, ultimately, in its material particulars, but the immaterial about today, its dreams and intentions, whether the will is good or ill, represents in us that which will never be buried.