09/23/2014 12:57 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

Death of a Civitas

Yes, it's the better part of ghoulish to spend a birthday's morning in a graveyard, but that's where the sidewalk ended and the walk wasn't over...

The Greenwood Cemetery is a drive-by kind of place: perched atop a forested hill with a convenient road-cut on its eastern flank to shelter commuters from facing their past. It is the final resting place of perhaps 500 people who departed for the hereafter between 1845 and 1945; one hundred years of births, hopes, losses, triumphs, and deaths.

I arrived at it by accident; and it wasn't the past that got my attention, but the present.

The place is a wreck. Vicious summer storms have downed trees and limbs aplenty, and Styrofoam cups are blown indelicately in from the street. Though the stones themselves are of typical Gilded Age elegance, the overwhelming majority had clearly (and recently) been toppled from their pedestals; many face down, many broken. Midwestern winters might account for some of this -- nothing remains vertical in the buckling, twisting earth for long - but a vandal's touch was unmistakable. High school hijinks run amok, someone's idea of a good laugh? What could be more comical?

Was it Hobbes who said that mirth sprang from a momentary sense of superiority? I imagine a band of hooligans (for who could do this alone?) chortling encouragement to each other at the sound of the tumbling tombstones; delinquents merely reflecting a national schadenfreude in scoffing at the sacred.

Sentimentalizing the past, I know, should be avoided, but the pathos of the place was palpable and begs memorializing:

- Catherine Lawson, wife of Conrad Lawson, died 1884; Cherished. 29 Yrs, 3 Mos, 1 Day. There is something heartbreakingly final in this, a grieving husband precisely counting out those days...
- M.W. Tholen, born Emden Germany, died 14th Feb. 1879. A Valentine's tragedy for a family far from home...
- Alfred Windelband, Geboren Apr. 1890, Gestorben Mar. 1892. Little Alfred was probably learning to walk...
- Baby Anna J. Drescher, Feb 27, 1895, Mar 28, 1895. Not a month old, a lamb figurine for a headstone...

- A simple marker arrested me: unlike the graceful engraved marble headstones of the 1800's, this one was of obviously home-poured concrete. It said simply, in childish, imprinted letters, crudely cast in hardening cement: "Father, 1945."

Good God.

What of all this? In pondering these bygone lives it seems as if something is missing from our modern ones, something lacking in the "what's important" department. I am absolutely certain I do not wish to revert to an era in which disease stole children and unceasing trials plagued everyday life.

I'm also sure, however, that we should not embrace wholesale the vapid self-centrism of today (you can't spell America without "ME" says our modern industrial-entertainment complex). Something is permanently expunged from our character when our greatest trials are self-induced (body piercings and half marathons) and our greatest victories are getting something without earning it ("free" health care! Yippee!).

How can we gain our sense of meaning back? Maybe, by cherishing our hallowed places instead of shoving them to the periphery of our daily bustlings, we can gain a sense of life's meaning without having to suffer the real thing...

The untamed neglect of the place was, I suppose, good for a family of foxes: a mother in the distance sitting upright, improbably, on a tomb for the "Wolfsperger" family; two pups so engrossed in scrounging breakfast that they didn't notice my arrival until they turned and looked at me square, frozen, in the face. They had dragged "Wing Street" wrappers in from the neighborhood trash, clearly no strangers to the delicacies that sustain modern America. I wonder, are they as insulated from real life as we?

This spoilt cemetery oughtn't to have bothered me but for the unshakeable premonition that it augurs something ugly and distinctly spoilt about ourselves. When unruly youths toppled the stelae of Rome's citizens, I can only imagine they were diligently re-erected the next morning. When tombstones are left to lie, mouldering on their faces, true vandalization has come; the gates have been stormed, the light has gone out of the land.