Monday, 16 September 2019

Peace Places

Friedhof is the German word for cemetery. Simply translated it means ‘Peace Place”.

For some people cemeteries are creepy places. They shouldn’t be. My morning walks during the 7 weeks we spent in the US explored local neighbourhoods in Phoenix, Chicago, Colorado, and Indiana. Some of my wanderings took me into such “Peace Places”.

Come walk with me…. 

Cemeteries are centrally places of memory.

Each person who is remembered by a stone or a cross or any emblem that is still visible had a name.  For many, that is all that remains.  The name.

Each one was alive at one point in time.  A breathing, thinking person.  Very precious.


I remember some of the names that I saw:  Friedrich, John, Sarah, Ann, Barsheba.  Most I don’t.  At least at this point in time.  

But standing in front of their graves I could read who they were called.  What their ears would have heard many a time across the span of their lives.  The moniker that would have turned their heads when it was called.

Of course, some may have only be held by their mother’s arms for a few brief hours.

This stone tells us of a girl named Myrtle Lucille by her parents.  It also tells us that she died on the day of her birth.   June 26, 1938.

What story lies behind this brief summary of a brief life? We have no way of knowing. But we can imagine the terrible sorrow of a mother bringing her child into this world, only to lose her on her birth-day.

Thoughts wander to the many other children in other places who do not survive their infancy.

In my mind’s eye I remember a hot mid-day in Jharkhand over twenty years ago.  In the silence of the early afternoon sun, I see one of our hospital orderlies walking with his wife who worked as ward-aide.  In his arms he is carrying a small cardboard box that I knew contained the body of their still-born child.  I doubt any stone remembers their grief.  Perhaps they did not give a name.

We are invited to remember. 

Because our lives are not just meaningless random particles bumping around in Brownian motion.

Because each one’s person sends ripples across eternity.

And though we live a span there is also an after.

“Peace Places” help us look back, and look ahead too.


This grave was unmarked.

But someone has come and placed emblems of memory.

Looking to a nearby grave stone - polished and sleek - I realise that though it has a  name engraved on it, both the named and the unnamed one are strangers to me.  I don’t know them from Adam.  Or Eve for that matter.

And I may yet meet either of them in eternity.  Or neither.

Will the people who are remembering the person buried here - the people who have put the plastic flowers on the mound, those who placed that candle there, will they eventually buy an expensive rock and have their loved one’s name engraved on it?

… or will they just allow the grass to grow over the grave and leave the name written in the cemetery records for those who choose to read it?


Is it macabre to think ahead of where you want to be buried?

My younger self would have said “yes!”.  Why bother at all with burial in the first place?  After you die its all over isn’t it?

But I am not so sure now.  The thought of having a place ready for you - especially if you are married does not seem so odd anymore.

Perhaps having crossed 2 score and 10 allows a different take on things?

Take this grave in a rural cemetery near Ossian, Indiana…

Thomas Hall, prepared a place for his wife and himself. They were born on two September days in 1953 and 1954, with his wife Elaine being the earlier delivery.  They married in 1975 and judging by the filled-in grave on his side of the stone, Tom must have died this August.   

When will Elaine be called by her Maker?   How much grief did she suffer when her life-partner of 44 years was taken away?  We certainly don’t know.   We do know that he is gone at the age of 65.  And that she will go some day too.

And so will me and you.  Many years ago the poet John Donne wrote about hearing the church bells of his day tolling, telling people that someone had died from the plague.   When the peals sounded, people would ask each other who had died.  Early social networking.  

And then the poet speaks to his readers (and to all of us all these centuries later):

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bells tolls 

It tolls for you.


My father lies in a simple grave, nestled among the deodar trees, far down on the lower side of the  Christian Cemetery in Landour.

Does he really lie there?  

Well, his mortal remains were interred at that spot - and we await the resurrection for sure. 

Going to his graveside is a way of remembering him.  Not the only way of course - those memories come flooding back when we see photos, or when someone tells about how Dad touched his life or encouraged him at a crucial time.  

But going to the place where his body was laid has a special feel to it.   We are not machines.  We treasure the flesh and blood.  And we believe that  flesh and blood will come back to life again.

Job says:  I know that my redeemer lives, and that I will see Him with these eyes… and not the eyes of another.

We are not fussed about the mechanics of resurrection. 

But we look forward to the day when:

The trumpet shall sound, 
and the dead shall be raised, 
and we shall be changed.


Graves take us to the past.

Here is a man who shares my name:  Andreas. 

This grave lies in Bluffton county, Indiana and seems to have a number of graves of anabaptists.  

A nearby grave is of Rev. David Baumgartner who was born in 1765 in Switzerland.  A plaque states that in 1839 at the age of 74 he settled this area, and in the same year became the first pastor of the first Mennonite church in Indiana.

Rev. Baumgartner’s grave was written in German.

So is this one.

This Andreas was born on the 24th of March 1811 in a village in the German kingdom of Wurtenberg.  He died on the 19th of August 1876, with his exact age written - 65 years, 6 months and 27 days.

I have not crossed that age yet.

But this Andreas did.  And he lived well beyond the average life expectancy of that time.

What was the world of his day?

It certainly was one where sickness was more feared than we do in an era flooded with pharmaceuticals.

A few graves away I found two sets of double graves.

Of children.

Who died at the end of 1874 and early 1875. 

Here is one of the pairs. 

The graves tell us that one child died 2 years old in October 1874.  Another was 10 years old and died in December 1874.

The neighbouring graves had siblings who died late 1874 and early 1875 deaths.

Was there a strong influenza outbreak that year in this area?

The graves give the dates but not much more.

But the German language and the year suggests that two sets of parents may be burying their children far from their own birth places.


And then there are graves which become memorials of battles carried on into the present day.

A morning walk in rural Georgia brought me to this grave.

The stone memorialises Corporal Daniel S. Lee of the 30th Georgia Infantry unit of the Confederate States of America.

No date is visible on the grave.  Did he die in battle, or later?  Do his remains lie here or is this a home-town remembrance of a man who died in the field?

A silent reminder of the Civil War during which estimated 620,000 soldiers like Corp Daniel S Lee died.

But beside the grave stone is something more modern.  A brand new Confederate battle flag.

I am very, very much an outsider to the reasons for people keeping these flags on the graves of Confederate soldiers.  But clearly there are some who want to keep these memories alive today, a century and a half later.   I suspect that the hands that put up the flag do not belong to a direct descendent of Corp. Lee, but to people who value a certain cluster of identities since I saw similar flags - also brand-new - planted next to other graves in that ‘Peace Place.’  

Or maybe not-so-peace-place.


Memories of the lost are not confined to cemeteries of course.  In our driving along high-ways and country roads we saw a number of crosses by the roadsides. Usually with some plastic flowers and a name and date not them.  

I suspect the crosses marked the spot where a loved one had died in a motor accident.

And then on one morning walk I saw this cross inside a private property.

A wooden cross, complete with what looks like a wreath - similar to a crown of thorns - at the top.

A knitted shawl draped on one of the arms.

An a large model aeroplane at the base.

A memorial of some sort.  Maybe to a beloved senior aviator of world war 2 vintage?  Or a young man who died early?

Without asking the owner of the property the morning-walker-by will never fully know.  

But someone has put this up to tell a story.  A lovely maintained memorial, most likely to remember and celebrate a person they loved.


Friedhofen.   Places of peace.

Voices that speak to us from the past.  Reminding us that our days are numbered.  But also that there is more to life than just the here-and-now, eat-drink-and-be-merry days.

One day our day will come too.  And beyond as well.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

New beginnings, new paths...

On this mist-shrouded Sunday, up in Mussoorie, smack in the middle of September, we are about to make another set of new beginnings.

A new path has opened up for us.  New vistas about to be seen.  The potential for something quite different to what we have lived in before.

Like the sidewalk that ran ahead of me (in the picture above) on a morning walk in down-town Indianapolis.

Tonight we have our 'going down day' - but not the end of term holidays in the haylcon days of boarding school.  Instead Sheba and I leave tonight on the night train to New Delhi - and then catch the Samata Express tomorrow morning and wind our way 33 hours across the country to Vishakapatnam.  There our friends from the Asha Kiran Hospital will pick us up by jeep and drive us up the Eastern Ghats to our new home and place of work in the Koraput district of Odisha.

Yes gentle readers.  Our latest stage of our pilgrimage is for us to be joining what God is doing at the Asha Kiran Hospital in Lamtaput, Odisha.

We are thrilled to be joining this intentional community which has been serving the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups of Southern Odisha over the past 27+ years.

Since we left the HBM Hospital in Lalitpur on the last day of May this year, we have been wandering.  Our journeys have taken us near and far - what a blessing to meet some of the most remarkable folks what walk this dear planet of ours.  

Through this Jubilee Year for Sheba and myself, we have continued to experience grace upon grace.

So we go.

Down the mountain and to the next set of hills.

Thanks for being along with us on this next stage of our pilgrim journeys!