I wish to share with you a story. Actually, I’m not sure if it is a story or not but rather an idea. This idea I had while visiting an abandoned graveyard not far outside Killarney, Ireland.
I. The Graveyards
I decided to rent a bicycle and travel outside the town. I had gone not more than 3 miles and saw that the city disappears rather quickly and was replaced by those beautiful green fields that Ireland is known for. Not far from the town I came upon a very old, overgrown graveyard and decided that I should stop and read the inscriptions on the gravestones.
The tombstones were well worn and many could not be read. Some had completely fallen over and were cracked. There were many gravestones, close together, all of them weather stained and the grass had grown to where it would grow no more having reached their full height. I read the inscriptions and found something similar to the following:
1. Where you are now, I once stood.
– This is actually a famous (now forgotten) inscription on William Caldwell’s Grave who was a revolutionary war veteran. It reads:
“Remember me as you pass by/As you are now so once was I/As I am now so you must be/Prepare for death and follow me.”
2. In memory of our beloved (Insert Name)
3. Here lies (name), good father, loving husband.
After reading the first inscription “Where you are now, I once stood,” had a profound impact on me . The second inscription also let me know that this person had a family, was once loved and did love. Yet, the grave stone had fallen over and the grass was untended. What occurred to me was that this person had a place in this world but over time was soon forgotten by his/her descendants.
This lead me to recall the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.” Please watch this and listen to the words.
I read these inscriptions carefully and wondered to myself why had the graveyard been so severely overgrown? Was there no one there to tend it? They must have lived nearby and been part of a community. Perhaps their community was small and disappeared completely or was swallowed as Killarney expanded? I wondered to myself where their descendants might have gone. Did they even remember that their ancestors were buried here? How could an entire graveyard be forgotten about? Did it have something to do with the potato famine and mass migration to other countries?
Whoever these people were, they most likely had been entirely forgotten about.
Simply writing the sentence above puts me in a very reflective frame of mind. These people belonged to communities, had families, accomplished, did all the normal things we all do. But now, they are long forgotten, time continues and the memory of these people being further washed away with each passing summer storm.
This sentiment is captured in the Irish Ballad “Danny Boy” which has different interpretations. One is that a man’s son “Danny Boy,” goes off to war, or, he is part of the Irish diaspora. Should he eventually return he might find the father has passed away and the father is asking him if that is the case, please say a prayer and remember him. Yet, life goes on and it is simply true that some will be forgotten as those who rest below me most likely had. In this case, “Danny Boy” did not come back. It was a very moving experience.
This lead me to thinking about my own life. Does it really matter what I accomplish or what I do? Will I even be remembered after a few generations?
The people lying in the ground below most likely had children, and their children probably had children. They spawned others, many of which will have no idea where they now lie. These people had feelings, drank at the pub like you and I, were sent to battle and eventually died as we all will. Yet, their graves remained in front of me, untended and broken.
The picture you see above is at a famous tourist attraction and would have been the nobility of society. Therefore, they are well tended. Yet, it is no surprise that most of the graves would be un-attended if they even had graves at all.
So, I spent a while in that graveyard, carefully examining the inscriptions and letting my mind be swept away with images of these long departed people, wondering about their lives, breathing in the fresh country air and letting this peaceful, quiet countryside carry my thoughts away.
I then got back on the bike and took a detour into a national park which I love to visit every time I find myself back in Ireland. I take the same path every time not only because I know it to be a beautiful path but also to bring back old memories of my previous trips. The first time I visited this place I was on a tour of Europe during a break from studying in Spain. So it is not only the memories of Ireland I’m bringing back, but my first experience living in Europe which carries vivid, almost magical thoughts of a time in my own life gone by.
Again, I started to think about how quickly life passes and when I come upon this ruined monastery with the graveyard out front it puts me to thinking about the impermanence of everything. Will people remember who we are, what we did? Does it even really matter?
This question resurfaced with vigor when I visited Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery in London.
As most of us are aware, the ideas of Karl Marx changed a very large part of the world and the lives of millions of people. His inscription reads:
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways—the point however is to change it”
Change the world he certainly did and I had expected this place to be busy with tourists.
There was not a single soul in the entire cemetery and this place is as spooky as a graveyard could possibly be. There are many gravestones, fallen over and partially buried in the mud, some coffin parts sticking out of the ground having been pushed up by tree roots, and weathered stone angels peer menacingly down at you as if they too might fall over at any time.
It was exactly like the graveyard in the movie “Interview with the Vampire” and I half expected the eyes of the stone angels to start following me.
As for Karl Marx, I was amazed that as important and influential as this man was, there was absolutely nobody there. If we look at the impact a man has on the world, there can be few who reach the heights of Karl Marx. His ideas spread throughout the world but even he will eventually be forgotten and one day his grave will tip over and crumble as well.
It is a very sobering thought that we all will eventually be forgotten. I had thought for a minute that perhaps the internet could change all this and perhaps even this post will live forever. But, the net is a vastly expanding monster full of websites. Servers fry, accounts become deleted and even if some things do remain it is only the ideas such as Karl Marx with the details and memories of the actual author quickly dying away.
Even memories of great men such as kings and conquerors do not live forever. How many Kings of England can we name, let alone what they did? Can we even say what our very own great-great grandfather did or even remember his name? They are all swept away with the passage of time or pushed away into some obscure reference that nobody has read in centuries.
II. The Meaning of Life
After my experiences with these broken down graveyards I began to think about the meaning of life. Here in the USA in school and work we are pushed to continually achieve, “move forward” if you will. We become wrapped up in our individual worlds and the minutia of daily life. But how often do we reflect on the mark we will leave in the world and if we are working towards our ultimate purpose? What is the meaning of our lives?
As I have a lot of experience dealing with business people some might believe that the purpose is to make money, to acquire goods. I look at executives of major companies which sell trinkets, soda water, fatty foods and wonder if this is something they would put on their gravestones? Is their work what they would like to be remembered for?
Other industries I really admire. Those that work for peace, heal the sick, explore space and really add something to humanity. These things have real meaning unlike the selling of soda water or simply trying to make more money off fellow human beings.
After thinking about this for a long while, the only real conclusion I come to concerning the meaning of life is simply taking care of fellow human beings. Working for peace, helping those in need and simply living a good life. As long as we are working for the greater good then I think a good life has been lived even though society tells us differently.
As morbid as it may sound, spending time in a graveyard is a great way to really remember what is important in life. Suddenly, trifles such as wearing fashionable clothing, acquiring more than the neighbors or even being a King suddenly seem not very important. Grave inscriptions that read “Helped others,” or “loving father,” seem so much more important than “was the CEO of a fast food chain.” In fact, I cannot recall ever seeing such an inscription.
Why is it that in death, we suddenly recall what is most important in life?
No matter what you do for a living, how much money you make, none of it matters in the end. If you are kind to others, appreciate being alive and strive to live a good life then it can be said you lived a wonderful life.