Unlikely as it may seem, some provocative soul has proclaimed tomorrow Plan Your Epitaph Day -- an activity that most of us probably would rather avoid thinking about. It's certainly not an exercise that children or teenagers are asked to do, unless an inspired creative writing teacher gives that particular assignment as a nudge to personal reflection. But the Puritans of New England did think about such things, and they believed it was their responsibility to prepare their children for the inevitable, cruel as that might seem to us. Indeed, one of the first and most popular books to be printed in the colonies around 1700 was called A Token for Children and claimed in its subtitle to be "An Exact Account of the ... Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of several Young Children." In the book, one child plays hookey from school, gets drenched in a storm, catches phneumonia, and dies, but not before he exhorts his friends, from his sickbed, to clean up their acts before it's too late.
The quiet, ancient cemetaries of Cape Cod are lined with rows of grey, lichen-covered tombstones. The stones often have carvings of skulls with wings sprouting from their temples, or stylized portraits of the deceased surrounded by urns with flowers and birds and weeping willows. And here, among the graves of shipwrecked sailors and elderly deacons and mothers who died in childbirth buried together with the babies who soon followed them, you'll find the small, touching stones of children that are often decorated with cherubs. Six and a half week old Bezaleel Shaw's grave on Nantucket tells a poignant story:
My life in infant Days was Spent
The graves of older children and young people often bear a more extended lesson. Sarah Shaw's epitaph in the West Barnstable Burying Ground reads:
Early, not Sudden Fled my breath,
These sentiments may seem morbid and heartless and thankfully out-dated. But the stone of 12 year-old Reliance Megee, who died in 1754, could have been written yesterday. It says, quite simply "A Hopeful Child."
Copyright 2005© John Cech
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