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Reflections on Life Epitaph

Elegy Written After a Bike Ride to a Country Churchyard

What do you do to celebrate 45 years together?

My husband and I chose to celebrate by traveling 7000 miles during the month of July, taking what we called a BookTourAnniversaryPalooza.

On the actual anniversary date, Saturday August 2, we did something much less ambitious.

We enjoyed a huge, leisurely breakfast featuring blueberry crepes, bacon, eggs, and delicious hash browns. In the afternoon we took a ten-mile ride in the Dayton, Virginia, countryside not far from where we live.

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Tall, emerald green cornfields alternated with soybean and alfalfa fields. The fertile river-bottom land and the narrow, seldom-traveled, roads made for a scenic ride. Above, azure skies and cumulus clouds stretched into infinity.

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To Stuart this landscape spelled “home.” Some of his relatives still live on farms all around us, and he remembered many childhood trips to visit his “Old-Order” Mennonite grandparents and uncles and aunts, traveling back and forth to church in horses and buggies.

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We visited two Mennonite churches and spent time walking among the graves. Stuart located the graves of his great-great grandparents. With a little effort, we could piece together inscriptions on their graves:

Magdalena Heatwole Rhodes (1820-1884) and Frederick Anthony Rhodes (1819-1900)

On Frederick Anthony’s grave were these words:

When this sad monument you see
Survivor, do not weep for me
Weep for yourselves for you must die
And try the grave as well as I.

When we returned home, I found the poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray in school? It’s one of the most beloved poems of the English language.

The language Gray uses is more beautiful, but the sentiment is much the same as the simple words carved on the old stone in the Bank Mennonite Church Cemetery.

In “Elegy” the poet contemplates the work those lying in their graves might have done. The rural setting suggests the ancient calling to work the land. The dead, now silent, are planted like another crop next to the farms where they worked:

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Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke:
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

At the end of the poem, the poet recognizes his own mortality and creates an epitaph for himself.

I like the first and last lines of this epitaph:

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth, . . .

The bosom of his Father and his God

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Do you like to visit graveyards? What epitaph do you want for yourself?

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Shirley Showalter (9 Posts)

Shirley Hershey Showalter grew up in a Mennonite farm family and went on to become the president of Goshen College and a foundation executive at The Fetzer Institute. She is now a writer, speaker, blogger, and consultant living in Harrisonburg, VA. She recently released her memoir, "Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World."


Comments

  1. Shirley – I love the vivid, crystal clear photographs you wove into this post!

    I’ve opted for cremation (going the “bio urn” route), but pretend for a moment that there’ll be an engraved stone, it would say, “Birth is not the beginning, it is a continuation. Death is not the end, it is a continuation.” — Laurie Buchanan

    • I’m glad you can enjoy the beauty of this stretch of country road through these simple iPhone photos, Laurie. The day was one of those perfect ones that always remind me of a quote from Virginia Woolf’s journal: ” I have three perfect pearls, three days.” I can’t find the quote online and first saw it on a note card, but for some reason, it stuck.

      Your image of no beginning and no end is also like a perfect pearl. Lovely.

  2. Beautifully written, both your post on the death of Robin Williams and this one commemorating a long, lively marriage and the legacy of Stuart’s forebears. How wonderful is it that we can continue to be English professors after we officially leave the classroom still weaving literature and filmography into our writings.

    Your photos capture just the right tone too. The last one really hit me: It is almost a mirror image of the landscape toward the cemetery of Bossler Mennonite Church. There is a large oak at the entrance to the cemetery with a cornfield edging the upper border. My parents are now both buried close to many other Longeneckers and in the soil that nourished their lives.

    I’ll offer not an epitaph but a comforting verse of scripture found among the dozens of sympathy cards we received: Blessed is he . . whose hope is in the Lord his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – the Lord, who remains faithful forever. Psalm 146: 5,6
    I’ll always remember my mother’s caring heart and my father’s strength.

    • “The Lord, who remains faithful forever” is like a tree planted by the river-bottom land. It shall not be moved. With the image of Blosser Mennonite Church graveyard still so fresh in your heart, I am sure you felt Psalm 146 and this photo in a very powerful way. Thanks for coming by to celebrate life and death with me today.

      And, yes, old English teachers never die. They just become bloggers. 🙂

      I’m so glad this path has given us a way to connect over the miles and through so many previously unknown similarities. Thank you for the gift of your words.

  3. For a number of years I wanted my epitaph on my headstone to be “She kept on keeping on.” Then I changed it to “She danced to the music of a different orchestra.” Later I added a second line – “–but first she had to hear the music.” More recently I have decided that I would like my ashes to be kept in a Cowan Pottery vase until the time comes for my survivors to scatter them in places yet unknown to me.

    • Clearly, Barbara, you’ve been thinking about this subject for a long time. What is a Cowan Pottery vase? I like that there’s humor and mystery in your epitaph selections. They seem to fit you well. The idea of cremation in unknown locations shows your trust in your survivors and your love of the whole wide world!

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