There is a church cemetery near our house that dates back to 1774.
It is the oldest cemetery in our New Jersey township and it predates New Jersey statehood. New Jersey was the 3rd state admitted into the Union in 1787. Prior to that it was known as the Province of New Jersey.
A relatively new, but appropriate addition to the cemetery is an arched sign over the entrance that reads “God’s Acre.” The sign was paid for by the descendants of one of the church’s founding families.
That term, “God’s Acre,” is a common label for cemeteries and it comes from the German word Gottesacker, which means field of God.
We know that people who lived in our Colonial Farmhouse are buried in that cemetery. I’ve searched out their headstones and, someday, I’d like to learn more about their lives.
It occurs to me that I feel an odd connection to these souls because we have something tangible in common – this house.
We’ve walked the same floorboards. We’ve sheltered under the same roof. We’ve put wood in the same fireplaces. We’ve drank from the same well.
I enjoy the luxury of living in this house now that it has indoor plumbing and electricity, but I don’t think they’d begrudge me that. Too much.
Our home was built a few years after this cemetery was first founded, but let’s talk about that year – 1774 – as it relates to the beginning of the United States of America.
1774 was the year the first Continental Congress convened.
It was a year before Paul Revere’s ride and Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. It was two years before the Declaration of Independence was adopted.
1774 was seven years before the Articles of Confederation were ratified and nine years before the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolutionary War.
246 years after that cemetery saw its first occupants laid to rest, American flags still fly in the cemetery and mark the headstones of those individuals who served in wars dating back to the Revolutionary War. Most of the people in this cemetery died long before they knew our nation would become 50 states strong.
Those American flags are a visible reminder that an immeasurable amount of sacrifice was made for our country. For me and my family. For you and yours.
If that doesn’t warm your patriotic heart, I don’t know what will.
Frankly, the “sacrifices” I’ve made lately don’t seem like much in comparison.
I often walk by this cemetery and it boggles my mind the stories that hallowed ground must hold. Wars, disease, boom and bust, civil unrest, modernization, constitutional amendments, medical advancements, love and loss. So much loss.
I wonder about all the moments these individuals saw and experienced in their lifetimes. I wonder what they’d think about our modern world.
I’ve spent time wandering through this cemetery trying to figure out who was the first person buried there, but I came up empty. Time has worn some of the headstones smooth. I suspect these mark the oldest graves, but I’d have to ask the church to be sure.
Just as time (and the elements) can wear down the surface of a granite stone, it can also wear down the sharpness of our collective memories. There are lessons from history that should not be forgotten.
Today is Memorial Day. In between celebrating this national holiday with my family, I will say a prayer of thanks to the individuals who gave their lives in service to our country.
Some of whom are buried in the 1774 cemetery near my house and served in wars going back to the American Revolution.
I will also be thankful for the history teachers, the cemetery tenders, the museum workers, the boys and girls who will grow up with a desire to serve our country, and all the people, far and wide, who make it a point to learn about the past, so we can change the future.
Happy Memorial Day.
One more thing! I shared the poem Memorial Day, 1892 last year, but it is worth another read.
Memorial Day, 1892 by Frederick W. Emerson
Our Nation is reverently thinking today
Of the loved ones sleeping beneath the cold clay;
Of the sacrifice made, and the brave deeds done,
To preserve our Union as a glorious one.
We ne’er will be able to pay the great cost
Of the noble, the true, and the brave that we’ve lost;
But over their graves, with tears like the dew,
We’ll lay our sweet flowers of red, white and blue.
Our Nation is paying its tribute today
Upon the green mounds where its loyal men lay;
While statesman, and orator, fondly repeat
The story of those who knew no defeat.
They tell of the Union united again,
By the triumph of those who died not in vain;
Of the forty-four states all loyal and free,
Of the peace, and the freedom, from sea to sea.
Our Nation is thinking, rejoicing, to day,
While comrades are kneeling their tribute to pay;
And hearts once sorrowing, rejoice now to see
The “Star Spangled Banner,” the flag of the free.
For out of their loyalty and brave deeds done,
Out of their battles and their victories won,
Came freedom and peace, and in liberty’s name
Our banner floats freely, with glory and fame.
Our Nation is reverently thinking today
Of the men now living who’ll soon pass away;
Like the grass of the field and the flowers they spread
O’er the graves of their comrades, immortal, dead,
Tall monuments stand to their memory dear,
But they crumble and fall, like the leaf when sere;
Our Nation united, forever will stand,
To those who preserved it, a monument grand.
Wherever we gather today ‘neath “The Stars,”
Let’s honor the living now wearing the scars
Which they brought from the fields of battle and strife,
While protecting “Our Flag,” and our Nation’s life.
Let the flowers bear tribute in their simple way.
And each one remember Memorial Day;
Remember the dead, and the living, though few,
Who fought ‘neath “The Stars,” and the red, white and blue.