I have been involved in the software industry for my entire career, including the development of forecasting and scheduling models using machine learning. As such, I was always skeptical of Sir William E. Gladstone’s ability to measure “with mathematical exactness” the nature of a people by observing how they treat the dead. Forecasting anything — the weather, stock market, price of commodities, the outcome of a political election, television program viewership, etc. — is fraught with challenges, and hidden and not-so-hidden biases. Forecasting a character of a nation or community is something else altogether.
While I think Gladstone exaggerated a bit in his claim below, he likely did so to bring attention to a fundamental truth: Society’s treatment of the dead is at least one indication of its character, and perhaps more important than we might imagine. Gladstone had some memorable quotes, many worth remembering.
Historical Figures And Celebrities
People have always been fascinated with celebrities from all walks of life. Even after their deaths, the famous continue to draw plenty of attention, whether it be Rod Serling in the small town of Interlaken, NY, Harriet Tubman Davis in Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn, NY, Robert F. Kennedy, in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA, or the Eternal Flame of his more famous brother, John F. Kennedy, nearby.
Nearly 3.5 million people visit Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France, each year to pay their respects to some of the world’s most famous people, including Marcel Proust, Frederic Chopin, Édith Piaf, and Oscar Wilde. The grave of the rock star, Jim Morrison, has become a veritable shrine to many (Our thanks to our talented friend, Jean-Yves Hatuey, for providing the photos below).
The most popular among us will always have their admirers, even in death. But what about the great mass of humanity, of whom Gladstone referred?
When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, our family routinely visited our local cemeteries, particularly after church. Throughout the year, family members would take turns weeding, buying flowers, placing wreaths, and keeping the graves clean of debris.
It was not uncommon to see a few dozen people in the cemeteries doing the same. Over the years, however, this practice waned. And sometimes, our cemeteries feel deserted compared to what I recall from my youth.
While I cannot quote statistics for cemetery visitation habits over the years, I suspect the frequency of visiting the graves of family and friends has changed and not for the better. There are probably many reasons behind our changing habits, including:
- People move much more often than in previous decades, and often live in different cities from their parents, grandparents, other family members, and friends.
- The tradition of visiting cemeteries has not been passed along to successive generations as it had been in the past
- We are as comfortable with the notion of death as we once were
- If you watch enough television commercials, you could get the impression there is some magical pill that can cure everything that ails us, and we might live forever, thus diminishing the reality of our mortality
- Society has been trending more secular and less religious over time
- Hollywood has done little to portray cemeteries and graveyards as anything other than places where dark forces reign and bad things happen to the living
You might be tempted to think the practice of visiting and caring for the graves of the deceased might soon be a relic of the past. Perhaps it will be one day. But there are many signs that the living continue to remember and honor the dead, often in ways that escape our attention.
They Shall Not Be Forgotten
If you visit enough cemeteries over time, you will invariably witness some odd sights and perhaps have a few strange experiences.
Some of the most fascinating sights I see, however, are the ones that go completely unnoticed to those passing by: the care and attention given by strangers and distant relatives to the graves of common people, who died a few generations ago.
One brutally cold winter day last year, I went for a walk in the historic Hollenback Cemetery, in Wilkes-Barre, PA. I came across a few graves that made me pause and think of Gladstone’s words. I don’t know what happened to little Tommy Mitchell’s headstone (below) or if he ever had one. It was obvious that the replacement, along with some brightly-colored artificial flowers, had been placed there recently. Who thinks about the grave of a little boy who died 143 years ago and decides it is important for those passing by to know the identity, age, and year he died?
Not far from Tommy’s grave were two crosses marking the graves of other children — John and Jacqueline — both of whom died before their first birthday. I judged these crosses to be slightly older than Tommy’s cross, but still erected in the past 10-20 years.
Whoever placed the cross on little Jacqueline’s grave even took the time to spray paint pink rose symbols on the beams.
I don’t remember what else happened on that brutally cold January day. But I will always recall the kindness others showed in ensuring these little children would not be forgotten. For many people, a small wooden cross or diminutive gravestone may be the only evidence that they ever existed.
While driving through Union Cemetery in Steubenville, OH, I saw something that appeared out of place: someone had left fresh flowers on a grave whose headstone was nearly unreadable. The grave was in an out-of-the way location, so I could not believe this was a random act.
I wondered who left these flowers for Martha, who passed away in 1881. Perhaps it was a relative in Martha’s family chain. Maybe it was a stranger, moved by Martha’s fading gravestone. I will probably never know the answer, but the scene caused me to recall Gladstone’s quote once again.
Paying More Attention
After these incidents, I began noting the age of the gravestones on which others placed flowers and decorations. In most situations, people had placed them on the graves of those who passed away in the past 20-30 years. I was surprised, however, to find quite a few decorations on graves from 75-150 years ago.
Many were on the graves of children, sometimes located along the steep edges of cemeteries, where, presumably, plot prices were lower than those in the main sections.
I also noticed that some crumbled gravestone from the 1930s had been replaced by wooden crosses, as I had seen in Hollenback Cemetery. The fresh colors of the wreaths and flowers indicated they were relatively new.
In Greenwood Cemetery, just above the Watkins Glen Gorge, in Watkins Glen, NY, I came across a stone with a little angel next to it. I judged the angel to be a few years old, based on the paint and weathering. Again, I wondered about the character of someone who would leave this token on the grave of someone who had died nearly 140 years ago.
Sitting high above the town of Watkins Glen, Greenwood Cemetery (and its co-joined sister cemetery, St. Mary’s) offers a scenic view stretching across much of northern NY State. What impressed me most about this little cemetery, however, was the amount of care people provided to the graves of friends, family, and yes — even strangers. Everywhere I looked, I saw fresh tokens of remembrance on graves dating back to the late 1800s.
I admit I have no answers for how to compute the “mathematical exactness” of a people as Gladstone described. I suspect he didn’t either. Perhaps someday, a creative individual will develop a computer software program that can calculate a value for the character of a nation, city, or community based on Gladstone’s quotation.
In the meantime, I have seen many examples of the “tender mercies” Gladstone describes — in how people care for the graves and memories of those long since dead. These small, but moving gestures have made an impact on me and how I view the kindness of others. And yes — I believe such gestures tell us something about our character.
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