Responding to Death: Words about the Dead and Hopes for the Dead

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I do not want to appear morbid; however, I am sometimes intrigued by cemeteries. Those cemeteries often show how individuals respond to death. The way individuals are remembered by words and decorations on tombs or on plaques in churches can convey powerful sentiments. The very location of cemeteries may also say something about the hopes for those who are dead. Here are some words I found stretching from Myanmar to India to Israel.

 

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During my last day in Yangon, Myanmar, I visited the Taukkyan War Cemetery.  I was again struck by the geographic extent of the British colonial empire. Scholars estimate that during the 18th and 19th centuries, the British Empire controlled ¼ of the world and 1/3 of all overseas trade used British ships. As a result of this empire, the British and other Commonwealth soldiers fought in places around the globe. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains 2,500 cemeteries honoring 1.7 million soldiers who died away from British soil. The Taukkyan War Cemetery in Myanmar has remains from 52 World War I soldiers, 6374 World War II soldiers, and the Memorial pillars commemorating another 27,000 whose remains were never found.

 

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As I wandered around this cemetery, I notice that the flat headstones are all the same. The soldiers’ headstones show no greater recognition given to higher-ranked officers than lower-ranked soldiers and no greater recognition to English soldiers than to the hundreds of Indian or African soldiers.

DSC_4254The words and phrases placed upon the tombstones got my attention. Some were simple: “Duty.” Others words sought to be comforting: “At Rest with God.” “For India, For Freedom, For Brotherhood of Men: For the Glory of God.” Others’ words were as much about the relatives responsible for the words as about the actual deceased person: “Though So Many Miles Apart, the Memory of You Remains In Our Hearts.” “Loving Memories, Though Left On Foreign Soil, We Still Remember You.” Finally, some words were haunting with their obvious pain: “Some Day We Will Understand.”

 

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In Kolkata, India, I was struck by the words on St. Paul’s Cathedral memorial plaques and the words on large tombstones at South Park Cemetery. As India became the centerpiece of the British Empire after the American colonies achieved independence, this “Jewel of the Crown” has memorial words celebrating sacrifice, recognizing loyalty in the face of treachery, and honoring individual creativity.

At St. Paul’s Cathedral in Kolkata, I find these words below the name of Captain Alexander Shreve and Ensign Ridell Green Tucker, and five other men characterized by that typically British virtue of “duty:” “…[They] died during the Mutiny of the Native Troops and Subsequent operations from 1857-1859. Some on the field of battle; some by the hands of their own followers; others by disease. All doing their duty.”

Also in St. Paul’s Cathedral, I read a plaque beginning with the words: “Not near this stone nor in any consecrated ground, but on the extreme Frontier of the British Indian Empire lie the remains of Patrick Alexander van Agee and William Anderson….and being treacherously deserted by the Sikh escort were on the following day in flagrant breaking of the National Faith and Hospitality, Barbarously murdered….” British visitors reading these words could not help but take away a sense self-righteousness and an assurance of the moral superiority of their British soldiers.

Also at St. Paul’s, I find a large memorial to William Forbes, the architect and builder of Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial. At the bottom of his large statue, we read a plaque that he [Forbes] “died off the Cape of Aden on his return to England.” Almost next to his monument, I read another plaque dedicated to ten men on a ship of the British navy which sank during a 1902 cyclone. Both the famous and the not-so-famous died differently than the “good death” described by another British writer, Jeremy Taylor in his classic Holy Living, Holy Dying. William Forbes and the ten sailors died far from home, far from those for whom they cared and who cared for them. Their deaths were the exact opposite of the type of death idealized by Jeremy Taylor and hoped for by millions of British people.

At the South Park Cemetery, probably the largest cemetery in India not connected to a specific church, I read these words for Augustus Cleveland Esquire: “In his Public Capacity, he accomplished by a System of Conciliation what never could have been effected by Military Coercion. He civilized a Savage Race of Mountainers who for Ages had existed in a State of Barbarism. And eluded every Exertion that had been against them. To Suppress their Depredations and to reduce them to obedience. To his wise and beneficent conduct, the English East India Company were indebted to the Subjecting to their Government the numerous Inhabitants of that wild and Territory.” The language “savage race” or “to reduce them to obedience” sends shivers up my spine. The memorial also recognizes that despite the racism of the language, this British official accomplished results that blunt military force did not.

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While in Jerusalem, I gazed over toward the old city from the Mount of Olives. I saw immediately before me the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives and the Muslim cemetery across the Kidron Valley on the slopes leading to Jerusalem’s city walls. This Jewish cemetery is probably the oldest and most important Jewish cemetery in existence. It contains simple raised tombs, often marked by small pebbles and stones placed on top by family and friends to honor the dead person. Its location is significant because the Jewish tradition believes that the Messiah will first appear on the Mount of Olives and move toward the Temple Mount.

The Muslim cemetery Bab al-Rahman abuts the old city’s eastern wall. As part of this wall, there is a walled double entrance which predates the current Ottoman wall that encircles Jerusalem. While Jews might refer to it as the Gate of Mercy and Christians as the Beautiful Gate (Acts 3), Muslim tradition refers to it as either the Gate of Eternal Life or the Golden Gate. Since the final judgment and resurrection will take place in Jerusalem, Muslims view this site as crucial for the future. For these two cemeteries, their very location speaks as loud as any words. While often fighting each other even in Jerusalem, both Jews and Muslims long and hope for a better and eternal life with Yahweh or Allah.

The Muslim cemetery Bab al-Rahman abuts the old city’s eastern wall. As part of this wall, there is a walled double entrance which predates the current Ottoman wall that encircles Jerusalem. While Jews might refer to it as the Gate of Mercy and Christians as the Beautiful Gate (Acts 3), Muslim tradition refers to it as either the Gate of Eternal Life or the Golden Gate. Since the final judgment and resurrection will take place in Jerusalem, Muslims view this site as crucial for the future.

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For these two cemeteries, their very location speaks as loud as any words. While often fighting each other even in Jerusalem, both Jews and Muslims long and hope for a better and eternal life with Yahweh or Allah.

Cemeteries and memorials offer a window into how others view this life, death, and life beyond death. Certainly Yangon’s Taukkyan War Cemetery reflects the sacrifice of soldiers around the world to the Commonwealth as well as the British ideals of duty and devotion. The Kolkata memorials imply the moral superiority of the British that died as well as the unpredictability of the hour of death. Although at odds with the hopelessness in Jerusalem today, the Jewish and Muslim cemeteries on either side of Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley exhibit similar convictions that there will be an eternal life gifted whether by God, by Yahweh, by Allah.

 

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