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Brothers Grim

Timothy J. JorgensenTimothy J. Jorgensen

Here I am on a raw, damp, overcast day, not unlike many an autumn day in New England. I’m in South Natick, Massachusetts, on a very unusual pilgrimage. I’m rooting around in the overgrown grass of a 200-year-old cemetery, looking for the headstones of two children that died many years ago, so that I can pay my respects. These children are no relation to me. I’m even having trouble recollecting their names. But I’m not looking for their names. I’m looking for their epitaphs.

The last time I had visited this cemetery was 14 years earlier, on quite a different sort of day. It was a hot July day, with scorching sun, and I was looking for a cool place to rest. I had been bicycling many miles, with no particular destination. Just a meandering ride through the old and quaint New England villages that dot the landscape of what is now just part of the vast suburbs of Boston, but was once a prosperous agricultural and mill region in its own right. In fact, the cemetery lay just across the street from an old dam that still interrupted a stream, though its mill hadn’t functioned for over a century. But as I looked around, it seemed to me that time had stopped…or at least paused to take breath.

All of the buildings at this crossroad dated from the early 19th century, and most were historic landmarks. As I gazed around, I imagined that this little village looked little different than it did 200 years ago, and I tried to envision myself transported back to that time. Of course, this required mentally editing out the occasional automobile that transited the intersection, on its way to the modern mega-shopping-malls just a few miles away. But this was a small concession for temporary admittance to a more peaceful and tranquil age, unstressed by the pressures of today’s world.

The cemetery, there behind the town meeting house, looked intriguing. It seemed the antithesis of a cemetery that one might find in a Stephen King novel. Not forbidding at all—in fact, with its large shade tree, quite inviting. I imagined many a traveler over the years stopping there for a moment of respite, and I wanted to be the latest. So I grabbed the water bottle from my bicycle, and passed through the iron gates, for what was supposed to be 10 minutes of tranquil rest.

But no sooner was I among the headstones of the long dead, than I felt something was amiss. There was an uncomfortable irregularity to their sizes. Unlike the near uniform sizes of headstones in more modern cemeteries, the sizes of these headstones varied greatly, which I at first attributed to a disparity in family wealth between the deceased. Yet, that explanation wasn’t satisfactory, as there really seemed to be two distinct size classes -- the large and the very small -- and the very small ones were numerous and interspersed within the same family groups. Then it dawned on me. Children! The small ones were for the children. An inspection of the inscriptions confirmed my suspicions, and I felt foolish that the answer had eluded me even for a moment. I certainly knew that infant mortality was very high in the United States until recent times, and it was not uncommon for parents to bury the majority of their offspring at tender ages.

Then suddenly this cemetery, this village, was instantly transformed in my mind. No longer was my vision of a tranquil place in a simpler and peaceful time. Now I saw a village in which the death of children was rampant. Where a stranger passing through town was not likely to linger in the cemetery to rest, because the cemetery would probably contain at least one small fresh grave—a disquieting scene no matter how much child mortality you were accustomed to seeing.

But there was more to add to my dismay.  Epitaphs were inscribed on nearly every child’s stone—the windows to the emotions of the parents as they lay their beloved children to rest. Many parents had chosen poignant quotes from scripture, but not all. Some used poetic couplets that captured their mood, frozen in stone, for the ages.

As I moved from stone to stone reading the epitaphs, my heart was filled with the cumulative grief of the countless parents who had performed the ghastly ritual of committing their beloved child to the ground. This unspeakable horror was a task that many of them had to do more than once. No prose from Stephen King could have haunted that place more than these brief lines etched in stone.

As I moved along, I felt like Dickens’ Scrooge, afraid to look at the next headstone pointed out by the ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come. However, my fear was not Scrooge’s -- that I would see my own name -- but rather that I would read a headstone with a painful message from the past that would cut me to the quick. Something that would tap the root of my biggest fear in life – the fear that I myself would one day bury a child.

And then I saw it. I was struck. Not once, but with a double blow. There in the grass was a pair of stones. Two brothers that never knew each other—Silas and Calvin—were lying there together in perpetual silence, material evidence of their parents’ grief. The stones read:

SILAS, son of John and Hannah Ross, died Sept. 20, 1812, age five weeks. “We scarce enjoy the balmy gift, but mourn the pleasure gone.”

In memory of CALVIN ROSS, Son of John and Hannah Ross, who died Nov. 13, 1815, age one week. “So soon our ancient comforts fly, and pleasure only blooms to die.”

I returned to my bike and cycled on, but the recreation of that day had come to an end in that cemetery. And the message that I took home change me forever. Of any misery that God might send my way, I prayed that He might spare me the nightmare of burying a child. And never again would I fantasize about the bliss of bygone ages, knowing that until very recently this horror was as common as dandelions.

I have long since moved away from the Boston area, and not visited until now. But here I am 14 years later, paying my respects to these two boys who have haunted my memory since I first encountered them on that lazy bike ride years ago. I don’t know if anyone else has ever visited Silas’ and Calvin’s graves in the 200 years since they died. I doubt it. But every time I’m in the Boston area, they can count on me to stop by their graves with flowers and to say a prayer for them, and for the very many others who’s brief young lives they represent.

Timothy J. Jorgensen, PhD 1984, MPH ‘05, Parent 2014, is an associate professor of Radiation Medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center.

 

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