James Holmes

Pestilence, Natural Disasters and Death

Our Naval Diplomat notes that the nondiscriminatory character of natural disasters is worth remembering.

Our church choir room is haunted. Or at least it should be. Behind the choirmaster's perch loom three stained-glass windows. The center one is a memorial to two sisters, one not quite twelve, the other not quite four, who perished on consecutive days in 1889. Sickness must've been in town. This elegy in glass, here in upscale Barrington (where, I hasten to add, the Naval Diplomat estate occupies the humble side of the tracks), reminds parishioners that pestilence, natural disasters and death respect neither youth nor affluence nor social class.

This is a perennial as lessons of history go. We navigated Peloponnesian War week with our senior students a couple of weeks back. Nature misshaped that conflict for both combatants. An earthquake demolished Sparta in the 460s B.C., felling the flower of Spartan military-age youth. Combined with ruinous demographic practices, that cataclysm set the city-state on a downward spiral that ultimately saw it succumb to a more vigorous Thebes in the 370s. A mysterious plague claimed the lives of between one-quarter and one-third of Athenians, including first citizen Pericles. Thucydides blamed the pestilence for negating Athenian self-restraint, in part by removing Pericles' calming influence on deliberations. Disease, then, helped launch the city onto a reckless course to defeat and disaster.

Now that American Civil War week is upon us, the nondiscriminatory character of natural disasters is worth remembering. Historian Garry Wills opens his moving treatise Lincoln at Gettysburg with a chapter on the "culture of death" that suffused 19th-century American society. That culture lent Abraham Lincoln's testament to the fallen its power, just as it lent Pericles' Funeral Oration — a speech on which Lincoln consciously drew — its power in classical antiquity. Lincoln's was an age when child mortality reached levels unthinkable to us today. One small example: there's a children's cemetery within the larger U.S. Naval Academy cemetery at Annapolis, Maryland. A children's cemetery!

But rather than foster sorrow, many landscape architects of the day designed burial grounds to encourage the living to tarry among the dead, taking a stroll or picnicking in a gorgeous setting. Even dainty Barrington has a cemetery in miniature from that tradition, perched on a bluff overlooking a backwater of the Narragansett Bay. The living consort with the dead every day, whether they realize it or not.

I believe I'm a throwback to that culture. Mount Auburn Cemetery, which dates from the 1830s, remains my favorite place in greater Boston, a metropolis boasting fine places beyond counting. There visitors encounter such notable Bostonians as Nathaniel Bowditch, the seaman whose American Practical Navigator remains in print to this day; Harvard president Edward Everett, who delivered a long-winded and, evidently, forgettable address preceding Lincoln's oratory at Gettysburg; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, my (and that half-forgotten fellow Theodore Roosevelt's) favorite poet; U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, whose Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States still mold American jurisprudence; and philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Asia aficionado whose residence now houses a vibrant art collection featuring the likes of John Singer Sargent.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

That's eminent company to keep. But even in such highfalutin' surroundings, you still come across headstones commemorating Boston Brahmins of tender years. That strikes a melancholy note. Where am I going with this? I dunno. We flatter ourselves that we're masters of our own fate. To discourage hubris, it never hurts to be reminded that Black Swans are always fluttering about. That was true in classical Greece and 19th-century New England. It remains true in our contemporary world.