There are places where life and death unpredictably intersect. I stumbled across such a place Friday morning while strolling the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Surrounded by parades of backpack-toting young people beginning a day of study and carefree contemplation, I walked into a cemetery.
The Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, a reminder of age and mortality, is beside the Center for Dramatic Art near the entrance to UNC along Raleigh Road. It’s the final resting place of Confederate soldiers, artists, university and business people, black and white. Carolina Playmakers founder Frederick Henry Koch is buried there along with former CBS journalist Charles Kuralt.
The only other living person in that cool, still place that morning was a bald man who got out of his Honda Civic with a huge bottle of Le Bleu to water a thirsty plot of vegetation covering a gravesite. I asked him about the place.
“You aren’t planning to come here are you?,” he joked. I hollered back, “Not anytime soon.”
The names on the gravestones are ordinary and odd: Adams, Blow, Couch, Friday, Logan, Odum. The stones themselves are granite, marble, cement, some polished and others rough-hewn and weathered by time, a mix of flat, tall, obelisk. The epitaphs are brief, but descriptive:
- Teacher of Children
- Devout Man of God
- A Red Cross Nurse
- Infant daughter
Other stones recall the former of occupation of the deceased. A shiny black granite marker bore the caduceus in memory of a life devoted to the medical profession. A single stone marking a couple’s grave listed their wedding date and told of their enduring love: “Lived Happily Ever After.”
Two plain, ordinary-looking stones held special significance for me. Dorothy Swain Weaver, who died in 1995, was born on my birthday (Jan. 19) in 1920. Athel Campbell Burnham, beloved husband of Johnsie Bason Burnham, was born in 1880 and died on my birthday in 1930.
Both are strangers to me, but the common date reminded me of our shared mortality. In the midst of a campus bustling with life, at the very heart of life, there is death. They are inextricably linked. We are born and someday – we know not what day – each of us will die. And what will be our epitaph?
Strolling the cemetery sidewalks in the morning breeze, while my firstborn decided whether she wants to be a Tar Heel next fall, I recalled the words of the psalmist:
“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90)