Lent Felt Different After That

by Robert Epley

I enrolled in a photography class because I didn’t have my own darkroom in our new apartment. With this class there was, of course, a term project. I chose to photograph an abandoned cemetery located in Engle, NM.

Engle had been a thriving community in the early 1900’s when it was a railroad stop for local cattle ranchers. The community is gone and now, only a few buildings remain. The long-abandoned cemetery shows the ravages of time and the natural elements.

When at last I had the pictures that would fulfill the project requirements, I spent some time really seeing what I had been so busy photographing. Several rock mounds didn’t have any markers. Others with metal markers had no discernable information. A few graves had protective fences around them; however, most of these were broken down. Wooden crosses alone marked several graves. Two or three of the headstones had obvious spelling and dyslexic problems. One grave was surrounded by an expensive iron fence that had been shipped in from Ohio.

I spent quite some time at a weed-covered mound of rocks with a wooden crucifix. Several times in the years after doing this project I felt drawn back to this image. I wasn’t sure why until recently, when it suddenly fit together with, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Always before this I had understood that death and decay were natural processes. It had even begun to be clear that eventually this would happen to my body. But what thundered in on me as I kept looking at this weedy mound of rocks and weathered cross was not death and the decay of my body.

I have fond memories and a sense of meaning from my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. I even have a few material objects that are touchstones for these memories. But of these ancestors as it will be for me, it is only the memories and feelings, the human connections, which will endure. Who these people were for me comes from who their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were for them. And so it will be for our children and grandchildren. The affect we have on family, friends and others is all in this life that will endure and have lasting value.

What made the Engle cemetery different than any of the other cemeteries I have visited? A community cemetery is close to the place where people live, work and play. Family and friends of the deceased have their own lives to lead and in due time they carry on. Daily life continues.

The Engle cemetery is different because it doesn’t have a well kept lawn, busy streets, and a bustling community. And while there isn’t a grave mound or marker for it, Engle itself and its way of life is gone. A way of life with people raising families, working together, and helping each other has ceased to be. The community context for lives is gone. While people died and were buried in the Engle cemetery, so also their community and its way of life died.

Sitting there in the Engle cemetery I became very aware that when I die everything I am doing with family and friends here and now will stop. I won’t be doing these things anymore. The Engle cemetery helped me see more clearly that I will leave behind everything that I am doing in this life. It’s hard to keep this in mind amidst the needs and presses of daily life. This is why I turn to this image for Lenten meditations. It helps me work on keeping all that I do in perspective.

While writing about this image and describing the cemetery, several graves with badly weathered wooden crosses came to mind. For each one, the cross that had been a grave marker is now a simple crucifix. No clues are given about the life of the person whose remains were buried there; except to say that they were given a decent burial. The wooden grave marker as it was changed into a simple crucifix has become an eloquent statement about life after death. As a life ends there is also a new beginning.

Image and Words by Robert Epley, all rights reserved.

1 comment:

Anne Doyle said...

Very poignant, Bob. From dust...to dust...at so many levels. You give me more to ponder during this season of reflection.

Thank you.