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MY grandfather's burial-place was within a stone's throw of the west room windows. To one coming from north or south, east or west, it was as conspicuous as the house itself. Its tablets were the ghosts of my childhood. They gave me many terrified waking hours, taking shape and motion to me as I stared at them from my chamber window. These family graveyards were a peculiar feature of the country. They gave pathos to a landscape, recording with tragic fidelity the sorrows and mortality of its inhabitants. My grandfather loved his burial-place. It was in the way of a straight path to the orchard and the mowing-field, but lie seemed glad to be turned aside by it. No spot, he said, was too good for little Benny. He used to sit hour after hour at the window which overlooked it, the wind softly lifting his silvery hair, while he silently contemplated this smallest, but most precious, of all his fields. What was he thinking about? what memories touched him? what certainties awed him? Watching with the keen eye of childhood I got no sign, for the spiritual life of this reticent old man was chary of utterance. He knew that in this bed he should some day be laid at rest; and the more trembling his old limbs grew, the nearer his feet approached the borders of the silent land, the more he used to sit and gaze at his graves, and ponder, without doubt, upon the mysteries of the hereafter.
These little fields were family heirlooms. No one could be so pinched by poverty, or so depraved in sentiment, as willingly to sell them. When farms changed owners, these were carefully exempted and fenced in. Occasionally circumstance so far removed, or Providence so blotted out, a posterity, that a grave became ownerless. Even then humanity kept it from hard usage. No question of utility could uproot from the sod the claim upon it of its first occupants. It was kept by their memory as firmly as when they held in living hands its written title-deeds. There comes especially to mind such a burial-place. It was upon a hillock in the corner of a field, at the end of a green lane: a lovely spot overlooking a wide stretch of country. A sweet apple-tree, always in summer full of fruit, overhung it. I see the uneven mound now, matted with grass, strewn with golden apples, and only telling by tradition of the presence of the dead. I remember how stealthily children climbed up the wall and snatched at overhanging boughs. They were shy of the windfalls on the other side, for these lonely graves were to fields what ghosts are to haunted chambers.
My grandfather's old farm-house, with its lands, may go to strangers; but the little field, first made precious to me by Benny's burial, shall remain undesecrated. Under every change of life I know that it will be to me and my children a hallowed possession. Its mounds, whose tenants have gone back to the dust from whence they came, have given place to hollows full of rank grass and yarrow. Its slabs of perishable slate are seamed and fretted by the wear and tear of many years. Its tumbled wall is covered with raspberry-vines and sumachs, and a maple-tree has grown monumental with the years which have eaten away the inscriptions from the stones beneath it. Not long since I visited the spot. I plucked a blossom from a strawberry-vine which had thrown its tendrils into an old grave, and looked upon the uneven earth about me. Benny's little stone reproached me with its forty odd years of wear. I grew sorrowful.
Then from the luxuriant outgrowth around me came the assurance of hope in death; every crevice of the crumbling stones was teeming with vegetation. Growth had been born of decay; from death had sprung beautiful life. The sod itself had been ripened by giving back to it its rightful dust. Why then should one mourn when a spirit, let loose from its bonds, exchanges its kinship with sin and sorrow and pain for a glorious immortality?
"Sacred to the memory of the dead!" This is the most common legend, and also the truest and best. There is no being so mean that he may not claim for himself this epitaph. The grave is common ground. So far as this world goes, it brings all to the same level. The beggar is as sure of his morsel of earth as the prince is of his tomb. The rankness of the one is as eloquent as the pomp of the other. The prince was clothed in purple and fine linen, And the damp mould clasped him; the beggar was clad in rags, and the busy grass wove for him a rentless covering.
The world is full of unknown graves, of whose tenants she tells no stories; the unmarked and uncared-for graves of people stranded by accident or circumstance; of slaughtered soldiers; of pioneers in new countries; of martyrs to liberty; of travellers in far lands. The sea is continually dragging into its hungry maw human life, which it absorbs and hides as relentlessly as it washes away the sands of its shore. There is an unutterable pathos in nameless graves. I have walked through acres strewn thick with soldiers' bones, the harvest of great battles. No inscription has touched me like the simple "unknown" which breaks the monotony of their epitaphs. It tells that there lies a man, no matter how long and well he has fought for his country, who was so undowered by fortune, so smitten by circumstance, that even his name has been lost! Yet no grave can be naked and forsaken, for trees and shrubs and grasses and flowers will grow on it, and over it spans the grand arch of heaven.
In the pioneer days of New England the churchyard was a favorite burial-place. The early settlers, beset by Indians, generally planted their meeting-houses upon hill-tops which overlooked the wooded country. They were thus less easily surprised, and better defended in case of danger. These meetinghouses had watch-towers; were strong with oaken beams and barricades; and on Sunday were filled with armed worshippers. To hold out unsleeping through long services was the chief effort of many of the overworked hearers. But the men, whose eyes were wide open, whose ears were quick to hear, whose thoughts were clear, condensed, their post was in the towers. Not an unseen shadow passed over the woodland; not an unheard twig broke in it; scarcely the rustle of a leaf escaped them. Death, or worse, might be the price of one minute of laggard service. What a grand picture one of these heroic old watchmen would make, perched, defiant and faithful, on one of those bygone church-towers; standing there as much a warrior against the wildness of nature as the savageness of man. Gérôme has painted a Mussulman calling to prayers from the minaret of a mosque. The turbaned old Turk, leaning from his lofty perch, gives a weird beauty to this cold, heathen picture. Our Christian watchman, lifted over the desolateness of the forest and the wiles of the savage, could not help standing out from such a foreground with a clear-cut and sublime distinctness.
It is curious to trace out on the highest point of some prominent New England landscape the almost hidden outlines of one of these Christian strongholds, invisible to the passer-by, but positive and well-defined to the antiquary. I have seen the latter coax out from a grass-grown summit the underlying sods of an old structure. He paced it for me, and told me where were its pulpit, its door, and its towers. He rebuilt for me this quaint house into the tamed landscape. One cannot at this day well appreciate the heroism of that armed devotion. It is easier to imagine how dazed one of the old watchmen would be to find himself suddenly resurrected upon his tower, with no foe to fight against.
When the Indians had passed away the meeting-houses were still, for convenience, centrally located; and, being used by a whole township, were often far away from any habitation. Later, however, the isolated meetinghouse, with its "God's acre," was deserted. Population increased, villages sprang up, and new places of worship were built to meet the growing means and needs of the people. The old burial-grounds began to seem too far away and too lonely for the beloved dead. Village people chose to lay them in some spot near by, which was fenced carefully out and adorned with trees and shrubs. At the same time the thrifty farmer set aside a spot in some field, apt to be the most conspicuous point on his farm.
Meanwhile the deserted plat, sown thick with the bones of Christian pioneers, was taken up and cared for by nature. Tradition clung to it, ghosts haunted it, vegetation ran riot over it, its walls tumbled, its stones were zigzag, it was ragged and uneven and wild, but beautiful. It lay upon the landscape a legend of the past, whether you read it in its rude inscriptions or in the gray desolateness of its aspect. It came to be known as "the old graveyard," — something incorporated into the history and atmosphere of the place; a solemn suburb, in the sentiment of which every villager had an inherited or acquired possession.
A mile away from a New England village, on the edge of a primeval forest, by the side of a deserted highway, have lain undisturbed for years the bones of its patriarchs. Here was once a meeting-house, but so long ago that nothing but tradition tells of its site. This meeting-house doubtless had its towers and its watchers; but the thing itself, and the actors in it, have literally gone back to dust. Only the undying beauty of the landscape remains, which embodies in it the ancient burial-place. This is almost surrounded by a pine forest, and is only separated by the thread of a grass-grown path from a beautiful lake. It is one of the sweetest spots I ever knew; and if a patch of earth can be sacred to the memory of the dead, this is made so by the dedication of munificent nature. The site of it, with that of the meeting-house, contrary to custom in troublous times, lies low. The shimmering little pond must have been delightful to the pioneers of the unbroken wilderness. Its shores can be but little changed from what they were in the days of the old meeting-house, for the pine-trees of its encircling forest seem as ancient as time itself. Were the pines, without undergrowth, and the pond and the highways good for strategic purposes, or were the builders of this ancient house beguiled by the exceeding beauty of the landscape? Three Indians, after a hard struggle, were once killed upon this pond, and the meeting-house outlived their race; so I suppose the old savage drama was played out in it. Long sermons were preached; guns were stacked by its doorway; and up in its towers stood men, whose eyes never turned away from the road, the pond, and the pines. Of all the tragic and historic life of the spot, we have left only this forsaken burial-place.
Now and then a traveller, drawn by the shimmering of the little pond through the trees, follows the by-road which leads to it. He stoops down, pulls apart tangled weeds and grass, and tries to spell out some of its time-worn inscriptions. He finds the deeply-cut name of the last pastor of the church, and of scores of other ancient and godly men. What he fails to decipher are manifold texts of Scripture and verses of old hymns, quaintly spelled and lettered. This now illegible stone-script was once tenderly illustrative of the virtues of the underlying dead. I recall, as if it were but yesterday, the last burial in that old church-yard; the rude bier; the procession of villagers following after the mourners; the sunshine and the silence of the day. The train wound slowly through the forest, by the pond, into the church-yard. There was no rattling of hearse and coaches; no crowd of gazers in holiday attire. It was a carrying of the dead with simple, solemn ceremony to the grave. The bier was set down; the villagers stood around it; and then the minister, with bared head, said, reverently, "Let us pray." His voice went through the old wood, across the pond, and seemed to fill all space.
I know of no service more beautiful and impressive than a village funeral of olden times. I have been to many such, and each stands out in memory like a painting. The bereavement of one villager was the grief of every other. Silence and sorrow fell over them all. The presence of the dead hallowed a house. Hard-working women crowded in, and grew gentle and beautiful with sympathy. Bronzed men, with hands calloused by toil, lifted and folded the rusty pall as lightly as if it had been of gossamer. The preacher, standing upon the threshold of the "best room," filled the house with his simple words; hymns were sung reverently by untrained voices; relatives took a last look of their dead; neighbors followed after them; the lid was hammered down with that mournful stroke once heard never forgotten; the coarse-handed, warm-hearted men lifted the coffin as tenderly as they had handled the pall, and carried it outside where the bier waited to receive it. The house was hushed as it passed out, and the procession, called out by some neighbor, noiselessly formed behind it.
What a terrible passing out that is, — the going forth of a dead body never to return! Hope goes forth with the most forlorn departure of a living friend. Sickness, distance, time, all leave room for desire and expectation; death never! We cannot know our loss until our dead have left us. The presence of the lifeless body gives us a measure of consolation. It awes us by the symmetry of its marble beauty. The utter peace and silence which possess it steal also into us, and we sit comforted in the presence of our dead. But oh! who can measure the utter agony of that hour when they go from us for all time, borne out unresisting, to be forevermore things of the past? If we call out to them, their own lips are dumb. Stretching out our arms for them, their own are bound and move not. Turning back to the desolated household, what utter emptiness is there, silence and darkness and nothingness where was fulness and brightness and presence! No echo of a voice in the air; no footfall; never so light a touch of the hand; gone, utterly gone; henceforth to be slipping farther and farther away from the treacherous hold of memory.
After a funeral the people were apt to linger, dropping off one by one, each to his own way and work; only relatives and near friends staying to sit down to unrelished baked meats. The bier, flinging out its fantastic arms, always marked the newest-made grave, and stayed upon it until transferred to that of a later corner.
I have listened hours to a village necrology from the lips of an old woman, who never missed the date of a funeral, nor forgot the way the wind blew on the day of it, or the meats the mourners ate. Her tales, told mostly in rude rhyme, were ludicrously minute, yet simple and touching. It was like the unrolling of a panorama of scenes, rough, perhaps, and sharply sketched by few lines, but most admirable for truth and power. Tender traditions, quaint old customs, you are all a part of the treasures of bygone days.