TALKING TOMBSTONES

Three generations of my family stood on a windswept cemetery hill a mile outside of the small southern New South Wales town of Boorowa. A rain storm was heading towards us, and we only had a few minutes before the welcomed wet arrived.

My mother understood the significance of the moment, but my kids would probably only appreciate the memory of a graveside stop in a few decades’ time.

“John Mulcahy” the headstone read, “A native of County Cork in Ireland who departed this life in 1867 aged 88 years.”

John Mulcahy was my mother’s great great great grandfather. In 1836 John purchased tickets on a boat for himself and his wife, and also their ten children – and they embarked on a three month sea voyage from Ireland to a new British colony in the southern hemisphere. The trip would cost him the lives of his wife and his seven-year-old son to Scarlet Fever, and John would see a fifth of his fellow passengers and crew die of the same infection before they reached Sydney cove. When they arrived, those who survived were forced into quarantine on a remote headland miles from the colony. “Fever Ship!” shouted the front page of the fledgling Sydney Morning Herald, and the vessel’s survivors were scorned.

John Mulcahy would spend the next two months in a makeshift tent with his nine children, released from quarantine when Governor Bourke deemed the Fever’s outbreak over. 

John took his family south and inland, two hundred miles from Sydney. He took them to sheep country, and they stayed for over a century. Four generations of John Mulcahy’s family stewarded the land and the livestock, and today Italian suit companies clamour for the superfine Merino wool the area sends back to Europe. 

My mother and my children stood by John’s grave, in the same place our ancestors had stood grieving over one hundred and fifty years previously. The spot seemed sacred to me, but my kids just rolled their eyes and asked: “Is this over yet, Dad?” They’ll thank me in a few decades…. I hope.

John’s tombstone is engraved with words both macabre and also deeply meaningful:

Remember me as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now you soon must be
Remember that as you think of me

The rain began to fall, and my children welcomed an excuse to scurry from an ancient burial ground towards the car. I took my mother’s arm to help her over the uneven ground, and we followed the kids’ lead back to the vehicle. As I helped her into the passenger seat she half-whispered something to me so the kids wouldn’t hear: “David, I hope I’m not forgotten when the next generation is gone.”

That may very well be every adult’s fear as we confront our own mortality.

On a windswept and wet hill, a mile outside of the historic town of Boorowa, I had ancestors from both yesterday and today speaking to me. A message from the tombstone of the dead and the lips of the living: Our time is short, so make your life mean something.

The Apostle Paul wrote something similar two thousand years ago: “For each one of us is a masterpiece of God’s, created deliberately in Christ Jesus to do a good work in this life.”*

My life is short. By God’s good grace may it mean something.

(* Bible quote taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2 verse 20)

Beside the grave of John Mulcahy (1779-1867). The Riley kids may be smiling in the photo, but as soon as I hit “click” the asked: “Can we go now?”
The small town of Boorowa in southern New South Wales has an annual festival called “Irish Woolfest” to celebrate immigration from the Emerald Isle that built their wool industry. This photo captures the ‘running of the sheep’

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About this blog: Pastor David Riley is a minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and is taking a sabbatical year to drag his family around Australia in a caravan. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series that meanders around a series of subjects pondered and stuff seen. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking “follow”.A group of people posing for a photo

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6 thoughts on “TALKING TOMBSTONES

  1. Being from Ireland myself, this was particularly interesting to me David. I am really enjoying your ramblings as David and I did a similar journey when Peter was just 1 year old. We only travelled for three months, but did 12,000 miles. It was an amazing experience in a car with no air conditioning and unmade roads – especially in the Outback!

    Like

    1. Hey Audrey. Glad you’re enjoying my travel ramblings.

      Our Irish ancestors did it a little tougher than we have it today 😳
      This gentleman has to quarantine for almost three months in a tent with nine kids – all the while grieving the loss of his wife and son. We complain about a couple of weeks on our couch 😂

      Similar to your experience a few decades ago travelling Australia with David, but without air con and on dirt roads. I’ll stop whinging now 😀

      Hope your staying healthy and faithful. ❤️

      Like

  2. Great story David. May we indeed, through God’s Grace live meaningful lives.
    Remembering my Dad and the meaningful contribution he made to my life and to others.

    Like

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