This morning as I was doing my daily browse of blogs I follow on WordPress, I was taken by this article from Marilyn Armstrong’s Serendipity blog, with a few simple photos of an ancient graveyard near her New England house. It reminded me of some old graves I’ve seen in the past few years, and provoked some thoughts–not necessarily as gloomy and macabre as they might seem at first blush–about the immensity of time and our relationship to it. In the United States, we are today (January 19, 2017) at the very end of one political era, and the beginning of another, about which there is much anxiety and uncertainty. It occurred to me, thinking about old gravestones like those I’ve taken photos of, how even the most momentous and important issues in our times and our day-to-day lives ultimately fade into insignificance the farther one zooms out from them. That’s the purpose of this article: to zoom out a bit.
The photo at the top of this article was taken in a tiny churchyard in the city of Bergen, Norway when I went there in November 2014. I didn’t take a picture of the stone’s inscription that bore a name, but the simplicity of that date, 1825, carved there in permanent relief, resonated with me. In 1825, when that stone was carved, John Quincy Adams was President of the United States. Slavery was still legal in the U.S. and many parts of the British Empire. Abraham Lincoln was a teenager and Charles Darwin was in medical school. The world was almost unimaginably different. Yet whatever Norwegian who’s buried under this stone has missed it all. He (or she) had already occupied this grave for 75 years before my great-grandfather was even born.
In January 2005, I took the above photo of an old churchyard on State Street in Boston, in view of the Old State House. Ironically this block is now surrounded by modern skyscrapers, thanks to the odd history and geography of how Boston developed. These graves date from colonial and American Revolution times. The people buried under these stones were long dead when the man in the 1825 Bergen grave was in the prime of his life. It occurred to me, even as I took this photo, that beneath the frozen earth there are still remains of these people. Their bones, their clothes, whatever jewelry they were buried in–all of that still exists, actual objects of the once-living past, down in the icy snow-covered earth. That wasn’t as grim or creepy a thought as it might seem. Actually it was kind of profound.
Here’s another grave I photographed in Boston, one John Starling who died in 1760. That was before the American Revolution. The king who was to sit on the throne in London during that revolution, George III, was a young man who’d just come to power. In 1760 Thomas Jefferson was age 17. Japan was still ruled by feudal samurai and Europeans had not yet discovered Antarctica. It was a long, long time ago, long enough for hundreds of summer rains and winter freezes in Boston to almost wear away the relief of John Starling’s headstone. But there it still stood, in the summer of 2014 when I took a picture of it.
In wealthier churchyards in Bergen, I found these fascinating graves dating mostly from the early- to mid-19th century. The vaults are stone but many of them are covered in steel slabs with epitaphs molded, not etched, into the metal. Some are quite elaborate. I might also add that this churchyard is built up about 6 feet higher than the level of the surrounding ground, suggesting that there are layers of earlier graves beneath these.
Here’s a closer look at one of the more magnificent slabs. Near as I can tell–my Norwegian is rusty–this is the grave of a woman born under the name Knutzen, the widow of a man from Trondheim named Ole Nergaard. She was born in 1771 and died in November 1844 in Bergen. Some of these other slabs give fairly detailed life stories, often listing a person’s occupation, other places they’d lived in their lives, or the names of their children even if they weren’t buried here.
Here is the grave of Ingeborg Lind, born in 1746, died 1827. This is one of the most magnificent grave slabs I saw. Below is a close-up of the angel, showing the pitting and corrosion from nearly 200 years of Bergen’s wet weather.
And here too is something to think about. Bergen was once famous for its snowfalls. Now, due to climate change, it hardly ever snows in Bergen, but rains a lot. Imagine the very first raindrop that ever fell on the steel face of this angel, back in 1827 when Ingeborg Lind was freshly buried. Everything is so different now. Even the chemical composition of the rain that falls today, in the early 21st century, is different than it was in 1827. Yet this ancient grave remains, and Ingeborg Lind is still there, her dusty bones resting peacefully in the yard of this church where perhaps she worshiped in life, maybe was married, maybe baptized her children who are also now long dead.
The immensity of time dwarfs us all. Someday, hopefully not soon, I will die. You will too. So will everyone we’ve ever known or heard about in our lives. We’ll all be where John Starling and Ingeborg Lind have been for so many more years than either of us have been alive. Perhaps there’ll be little pieces of us left somewhere–gravestones or mementos, a lock of hair in a tiny vial, a photo or a painting, an object we once cherished or perhaps never thought twice about but somehow manages to speak for us in a distant era. The things we fill our day-to-day lives with, that seem so important when we’re in the moment, won’t matter anymore and will seem insignificant. That doesn’t mean that we are insignificant or that our lives are meaningless. Ingeborg Lind, whoever she was, touched and changed the world in some way. But we have to put things into proper perspective.
This is what I was thinking about today, for what it’s worth.