The silence of a cemetery. A chiseled hand on an old gravestone points upward. "Gone to a far better place."
The cemetery is sited on a hillside above a meandering creek. Long ago laughing children leaped from rock to rock in pursuit of elusive minnows and roamed through nearby woods. Echoes of their laughter soon faded into silence. They lived out their lives and were brought back here to be buried by their children.
"Gone to a far better place." Heavenly wisdom or meaningless words? Can we pause in our madcap pace of leaping place to place in pursuit of earthly goals to listen?
Our ancestors knew hardship and heartache. And yet they persevered for heavenly rewards unseen and unknown — known only to a Creator who endowed them (and us) with unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Life? The man whose metaphorical hand points upward on his tombstone lost his brother and sister to a frontier fever. His parents buried those children and moved onward, downriver by flatboat to a "far better place." For them. We each seek out our own better place.
Liberty? We enter governmental bands and bonds to secure the common good but must fight to preserve our individual liberty. Then and now.
The pursuit of heaven was the pursuit of happiness for most of our ancestors. The keys to the kingdom were the Ten Commandments. They speak to all people of all faiths and are righteous rules of conduct for a nation of laws and not men (humankind).
The buried man's father and his shopkeeper friend had emigrated from the north of Ireland in the late 1700s. Letters from their families were filled with biblical advice to "shun bad company and keep the Sabbath." Return letters thanked their parents for instilling virtues in them and spoke of seeing them once again "in mansions of never-ending felicity" where the hand points. Honor thy father and thy mother. And as they did in this country, so their own children did.
We see examples and set examples for others — of behavior we always seek to better. As we enter a new year, let us simply resolve to do better — as a person, as a family, as a nation. Yes, gone to a far better place. But we get there by being kind, considerate and courageous in the here and now. Our ancestors' revolution for liberty allows us to have a resolution to do better. May we so resolve.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida. His ancestor lies buried in the Rapp Cemetery in Clermont County, Ohio. The damaged tombstone is once again pointing upward. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.