Do What You Can

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Several years ago, I and a team of fellow archaeologists recorded an abandoned graveyard. It was one of the most difficult places I've worked in. It was blazing hot, and the cemetery was infested with rattlesnakes. You had to carefully pick your way through the vinca and tall grasses, as several of the graves had been looted, open pits hidden below the vines. One of the looted graves was that of three children, Emma, Patti and Morral Jane, who died in the 1860s, all under the age of 12.

I'll be honest, I didn't have the courage to look into the hole to see if someone just looted the grave, or actually stole the bodies. Today, as a parent who has lost a child, I'd look.

There was also a family grave marker, a marble, faded obelisk. I often think about the family's father, John, who over a period of three decades lost his wife, two young sons, and two young daughters. How devastated he must have been, and I wondered what kept him going after losses like that. I later found that he had one remaining daughter who went on to marry a successful local rancher, and had many children and grandchildren. Reason enough, I think, for John to carry on.

Back in the corner of the cemetery was a broken tombstone. The name and dates of the woman buried there are gone, only the epitaph remains. It reads "She hath done what she could." This was a popular epitaph during the 19th century, and I thought at first that it was the final indignity, damning her with faint praise. I've since come to appreciate it. Certainly, not doing what you can is inexcusable, yet so many of us seem to muddle along, not committed to our lives.

Our ancestors threw themselves at the future, fighting for life while mourning the loss of their loved ones. I believe cemeteries do more than commemorate the dead; they remind us of the responsibility of the living. Do what you can.


With a Perspective, this is Mike Newland.