I was going to pass on posting this week in the aftermath of the Orlando mass shooting last weekend. The place where I have lived and worked for the last 16 years has suddenly become a place where I feel afraid to live and work, but I understand that these things take time to process and that there will be a day when the people of Orlando feel safe again, and feel like they’re at home. One thing that I do know from my own experience with violence is that it changes so many lives so rapidly. People who witness something like this are never the same again. The positive point here is that the good people of Orlando poured forth their love, time, and money to make this a gentler transition- if such a thing exists- for those involved.
I decided to write this week about the last place where I felt completely comfortable and happy (no, I am not writing about my own bed). That place was the St. John’s Episcopal Church Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia on a rainy morning a couple of weeks ago. The wall that surrounds this beautiful space is actually so pretty that Caroline and I walked the entire city block, just to check it all out. Part of the wall on one side of the cemetery had been reinforced with metal bars to keep the wall from giving way- but it was holding its own and I was grateful to see that this place is cherished. The church dates from 1741 and since we were there on a Sunday, we did not go in because they were holding services. We did get to hear the bells ringing, and that in itself was magical.
The cemetery ended up on our radar when we visited the Poe Museum (which was amazing!) and found out that Edgar Allan Poe’s mother was buried here. We had expected a modest stone, but there was actually a very large monument erected to her with a medallion in the center of a beautiful woman holding a raven. It was a fitting tribute to Elizabeth Arnold Poe, 1787-1811. In front of it was a blooming magnolia tree that perfumed the air with its lemony scent. The stones all around us were extremely old and many dated back to the late 1700’s, and sadly, many others could not be read. The church and historians had made valiant preservation efforts, everything from leaving headstones in the pathways through the churchyard to leaving them erected where they were and building around them. I literally looked down and found that I was standing on a grave- even though I was on the path. It’s not my normal practice to purposely stand on graves, I usually try to read headstones from the side to avoid standing on someone and potentially sinking into soft soil.
Caroline said, “How do you feel about that? About what they’ve done here?” She indicated the gravestone.
“I’m just glad they left the headstone where it was. I don’t care if they bricked it in- at least that way it’s protected,” I answered. I thought of Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah with it’s wall of headstones that have been affixed to the bricks at the back of the cemetery. It’s overwhelming, but makes for a great hour of reading and strolling. In that case I was glad they still had the stones, but wished they could have been left in place. I understand that it’s not always possible.
St. John’s is especially famous for the speech that Patrick Henry delivered here with the famous words, “Give me liberty or give me death!” There is also a signer of the Declaration of Independence buried here, George Wythe, 1726-1806.
Caroline and I split up and looked around on our own for awhile and since we had been doing so much walking and I found a place to rest, I decided to sit down to wait for her to catch up. I sat on a step and leaned back for a moment, my hands splayed behind me on the brick, picking up their warmth. I turned and looked, and I realized that I was sitting right next to a large headstone that could still be read.
Ann Carty Alison Wife of Fr. Alison who departed this life April 18, 1793, aged 35 years
She was a kind and loving wife and tender parent and a good Christian.
About 223 years before a group of mourners had gathered in this spot to lay her to rest. They stood where I was sitting, looking down into the grave. I sat there for awhile, looking at the headstone, wondering what she was like and how she died. What horrors did she witness in her lifetime? What beauty?
After 49 people died senselessly in my hometown this week, I go back to Patrick Henry’s words for courage.
“Besides sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.”
If you or anyone you know was affected by the shooting in Orlando, you have my deepest sympathy. I’m thinking today that I can walk into any cemetery and be mostly fine, but I can’t bring myself to go to the victim’s memorial downtown.