Some years ago my wife and I spent a night in an old inn on the shore in Rockport, Massachusetts. Early the next morning I strolled down to the beach, which was piled high with granite boulders. As I picked my way over rocks toward the water, I noticed something inscribed on a squared-off slab of stone facing Pigeon Cove. I could not quite read it from where I was standing, so I worked my way over to the rock face. There, carved by hand, was this inscription:
I noticed the letters had been carefully filled in with black enamel so they would stand out. I wondered why someone had gone to all this trouble to leave an inscription that was visible only to the nimble few who could climb over large boulders to get to the water's edge.
Just then I looked up and saw a pair of beefy young man laden with diving gear making their way over the rocks toward the water. They were clearly undeterred by the inscription's implicit warning, if they noticed it at all. Later, as my wife and I sat in the hotel dining room having breakfast, I looked out and noticed other divers unloading gear from their cars and heading down to the shore. The stretch of rocks behind the inn must have been a popular diving spot, which may explain why the hand-crafted memorial to David Holton was located where it was. The inscription was not meant for tourists like me but for other divers.
David Holton's simple epitaph will probably long outlast those who memorialized him, but in geological terms his name might just as well have been written in sand. If you go walking in any old New England cemetery, you will see what I mean. Many of the tombstones are so worn by time that their inscriptions are barely legible, if at all. It is true that granite is more durable than the marble, slate or brownstone once favored for this purpose. However, even the hardest rock will eventually succumb to the elements. In the end, nature defeats every effort to leave one's mark on the world.
A famous passage in Ecclesiasticus speaks of those "who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived." Sooner or later, this is the fate that awaits us all. We may live on for a generation or two in the memory of family and friends. But eventually we must return to dust, and even the stone marking our final resting place will bear no trace of our existence.
It is, of course, perfectly understandable that those who cherish our memory might wish to mark our passing, but that should be no concern of ours. Alone among all those who knew us, we will be beyond caring. And yet there is something in us that cannot bear the thought of leaving this life, and we may grieve in anticipation of a loss that we will never actually experience ourselves.
To hold life dear does not mean we must hold on for dear life. There is a final grace in being able to let go, and also perhaps a final realization. For it is only in the act of letting go that we discover that our life cannot be lost, because it was never ours to lose. Life is jointly held by everything in creation, and it is everlasting. Our individual existence is no more substantial than a shadow whose brief passage marks the rising and setting of the sun. And when our day is done, we know there will be evening, and there will be morning, a new day.