The Lessons Graveyards Teach

This blog, Historical Trinkets, is a gem–its subtitle is “Hidden history, book reviews, photographs and general history-related prattle.” If you like old graveyards, then you should definitely check it out. Being a huge graveyard nut myself, I have enjoyed perusing it. (Thanks to Mary V. Thompson, Research Historian at Mount Vernon, for the tip). Prominent on this blog are photographs from graveyards around London from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The sculpture, symbolism, and serenity of an old graveyard are unforgettable.

When we were living in Orange County, Virginia, I used to go over to the Maplewood Cemetery in Gordonsville and walk the grounds. My grandparents on my father’s side are buried there, and I remember being there for my grandmother’s funeral almost forty years ago. The Maplewood Cemetery is located outside the town, and I never encountered another person while walking amongst the tombs (at least among the living).

The Maplewood Cemetery is divided up into distinct sections. There is a modern section on the eastern half of the cemetery that is typically ordinary–many of the tombstones are flush with the ground and there is little imagination represented in that section. There are no statues of mourning angels, no inscribed eulogies and no relief sculptures on the tombstones. Modern cemeteries tell a lot about the aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities of a culture, and the culture’s ability to reflect on its own mortality. In that section, the message to be gleaned from the passer-by is, as it were, “a bunch of people lived awhile and then died–keep moving, nothing to see here.” Modern cemeteries provide an interesting commentary on the contemporary worldview, just as old ones do, but that’s another blog post.

The interesting side of the Maplewood Cemetery is the west side. There are numerous graves containing remains from soldiers who served the Confederate Army. Most of these were officers, and native to Orange County. There is also a mass grave tucked away in the trees near the back of the cemetery, containing remains of unknown Confederate dead. And there are many graves of prominent people of Gordonsville–these graves are particularly beautiful and often poignant–haunting would even be a good term.


There is a long row of family plots, each of them walled off and gated. In each of these little family plots, the graves are surrounded by stately trees, spreading ivy, and tall boxwood shrubs that emit their subtle fragrance, redolent with dignity, solemnity, and timelessness. It’s quiet in those little walled-off parks. They are places of reflection. They make one consider how one has spent his life, and the time one has left on this earth. One bears in mind that someday, in the not too distant future, there will be a gravestone bearing his own name.

As you walk among those tombs, you pass among ornate sculptures. There are obelisks covered in drapery, symbolizing end of life. Some obelisks are cut off, symbolizing life cut short. Sculptures of oaken stumps represent the same. Marble angels mourn over other graves, often children and infants whose lives were extinguished by disease or accidents. Each of these sculptures have a bit of morbidity to them, but many of these also harbor the hope of resurrection and life eternal. On many gravestones, there are relief sculptures of lit candles, or of evergreen boughs. There are verses from Scripture, notably 1 Corinthians 15 and John 14. And all around the signs of death are signs of life–trees, grass, birds, and breezes. In the spring, there are daffodils and the buzzing of bees all round.

I used to go to that cemetery to pray, to reflect, and to meditate on Scripture. How I miss that lovely place.


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