DC Shrines and a Cemetary in India

British Cemetary

Last evening I was at the event “Mourn Our Loss, Claim Our Future: Responses to Gun Violence” that I had helped organize. It featured Lloyd’s Wolf’s photographs of DC shrines that people erect were someone was killed by gun violence. I will write more about that in a later blog. Today I will revisit a blog post I wrote when my wife Ruth and I lived in India five years ago and visited the old British Cemetery in Calcutta. The similarities and differences are haunting.

The British Cemetery was opened in 1767 and the last tombs were erected around 1830. The first thing that impressed us was the huge size of most of the tombs. The next was how young most of the people were who are buried here. It’s as though the tombs they built were a way to reassure themselves that they had indeed lived.

Many had some connection with the British East India Company. Quite a few died in their twenties and thirties in tragic circumstances involving sickness, war, and mishaps on the sea. I couldn’t help wondering about the push and pull factors that had drawn them so far away from their native land.

One tomb that especially stood out was that of Elizabeth Jane Barwell who died in 1776 (the year of American independence) when she was only twenty-three years old. Her husband was a council member of the East India Company. I wonder about her social background in England. Was coming to India a way to escape poverty and find a new social position? Was she an adventurer who wanted to see the world? Was she able to adapt to her new home or was she terribly lonely and homesick during her brief time here?

Another striking reality is that this once grand cemetery had recently been completely run down and overgrown with vegetation. It served as a shelter for homeless people and a hideout for robbers who lived in the tombs for several decades after Indian independence in 1947. No one, not even the British, had much interest in maintaining it. It has since been cleaned up and partially restored but still needs lots of work. It feels like a dilapidated relic of a bygone era and perhaps that’s how it should be.

Visiting the British cemetery could lead one to despair over the futility of life and all our efforts. But it doesn’t affect me in that way. I actually find hope in the realization that life is short. It gives me added perspective on our notions that the things we’re engaged in right now are absolutely crucial. And it gives me a desire to be more deeply rooted in the eternal wisdom of God. My prayer is that such rootedness will give me greater ability to free myself from the petty obsessions that often rule our efforts and relationships. I find serenity in thinking of my life as fragile, yet connected to the eternal wisdom of God.

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