I spent last weekend at our cabin in West Virginia. It’s in the woods up on a mountain, around a bend of the river from the town of Harpers Ferry. This is the spot in the green Appalachians where the Shenandoah River—an Amerindian name meaning “daughter of the stars”—flows into the Potomac. Lots of history here. A good, steep hill for climbing every morning, too. And when you get to the top there’s an old cemetery, so old in fact that Mr. Harper, whose ferry it was, is buried there. Thomas Jefferson was President then. You can look out over the confluence of the rivers and think, “Well, I ain’t the first person who ever stood here contemplatin’.”
Fact is that I’ve been spending time in this cemetery since I was in my late teens. I used to bring girls up here. Sounds like a fun date, no? But as with my old friend Prince Hamlet—another college boy with mortality on his mind—girls sometimes go for the serious type. I must say, however, that I’ve never been gloomy in this cemetery. Cemeteries cheer me up.
I like the company of tombstones. I like in particular old tombstones with inscriptions that predate my own arrival on earth. Best are the tombstones so worn—like Verlinda Stipes’s here—that you can’t even tell when the person—or, I should say, all that was mortal of that person—was buried. The older the tombstones, the better. And the more of them, the better, too.
Why? One reason, of course, is that it’s always reassuring to be reminded that we’re not alone in our predicament. Mortality loves company. If you think it’s a big deal that your days are numbered, if you’re of a mind to take it as a personal affront that you’ve got an expiration date when you’re so clearly deserving of an unlimited shelf life, look around. It’s the way of all flesh. All flesh, including yours. So cheer up.
If that doesn’t work for you—if, like Hamlet, you’re worried about “what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil”—think of this. Innumerable people—many of them right here in this cemetery—lived their lives from start to finish in a world of which you were not a part. They did stuff, they had things to say, they got mad at their kids sometimes and sometimes they danced. Meriwether Lewis gathered supplies here in Harpers Ferry for the Corps of Discovery. John Brown staged his notorious raid here in Harpers Ferry and the armies of the Union and the Confederacy fired cannon at one another. Right here; back then. You missed all of it and at the time you didn’t even know. Do you fear 1803? 1859? 1861? We have no more reason to fear what comes after “we have shuffled off this mortal coil” than we do the millennia that came before we shuffled it on.
Isn’t that cheering? Still fearing what comes after death? You might as well suddenly panic at the thought of what it was like the day before you were conceived. Someday, my friend, someone else will come across your tombstone, just as you came across these tombstones today. And if they’re in the proper frame of mind, they’ll smile.