April 9, 2012

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

The cemetary is a stark contrast with nearly two hundred years worth of grave markers, some crumbling beneath the rich Hoosier soil.
Here in this peaceful place the bones of my ancestors lie, starting with Reuben Long, my great-great-grand grandfather who came with his brother and a team of oxen from Pennsylvania in the 1820s. Indiana had just become a state and Miami Indians still occasionally roamed the woods. While there was some good farmland in the area, most of Washington Township was wooded and even some area pocked with large boulders.

Even two hundred years ago, the waterways were the same, tiny Sugar Creek running into the Eel. The Eel winding an easy way to the Wabash, the Wabash eventually finding the mighty Ohio and onto the Mississsippi.

From Reuben's marker in the top picture, cross a quarter mile of stones and bones and trees and marble to the place where my grandparents and mother are laid to rest. Pass over my great-grandparents simple stone, near their daughter who was killed in a car accident in her twenties. It was the Jazz Age and she rode in a yellow coupe with her beau; was she laughing too hard like some archetype from a Fitzgerald novel? What happened for her life to end so quickly and come to rest here in this quiet place where her great-niece walks on a spring morning?

Off to the side, placed out of line with the others, is the large stone marker for my great grandfather Washington Long and my great grandmother. He was a well-known Democratic pol in the township who well outlived his wife and enjoyed traveling to Florida on the train in the winters as an elderly man. The history books of our county always contain a section on him.

While I am grateful to have information about my family history, it always just spawns more questions than it answers. Why was the family buried in a Lutheran cemetary? There's another Long who has a glass window on the inside of the little church with his name on it. I think this was my relative's brother. What brought them to this church?

Because I believe the soul lives on, I don't think any of these forebearers are there yet these markers exists as monuments to their lives. Unlike New England where generations of families share the same plots, Midwesterners were more mobile and some kept pushing west leaving families scattered.

Visiting on this spring day is a reminder that like Emily taught us, the horses heads are indeed heading for eternity.

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Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

--Emily Dickinson
Other suggested readings: Elegy in a Country Church Yard by Thomas Gray and When Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloom'd by Walt Whitman. Both too long to include in this post.