Silent as the Grave
For most of my teenage years, my family lived in a house with a beautiful view. Our street ran along a hill outside of town, and from the upstairs windows it was easy to look out over miles of lush Ohio woods. Nearer the house, where the backyard ended, the land sloped down, then rose again, forming the next hill, where the cemetery was.
We had an excellent view of the tombstones.
It was an easy walk down the hill beyond our yard. The hill descended quickly, but it wasn’t too steep, and the grass was always mowed. The bottom was sometimes soggy, but once we’d made it across, we had free rein over the maze of interconnected, well-paved paths arcing through various parts of the cemetery.
It was always quiet.
I sometimes wondered if it was okay to talk, or laugh, on those family walks among the graves. I would read the names, the dates, and—if someone had shelled out a bit more cash—the epitaphs.
What strikes me to this day, when I’m in a cemetery, is the sense of whether I’m looking at a symbol of hope or hopelessness. Sometimes elaborate engravings, sentimental phrases, abundant flowers, or even trinkets adorn the stones. In some places, the graves are gardens. When I was in a churchyard in Austria, I saw that the headstones looked out not over cropped grass but raised beds.
Death comes up. The gravestones grew in number each year we lived on the hill with the quiet view, slowly filling the far slope. An epitaph is just a way of acknowledging the fact, and the best ones, like Sir Walter Raleigh’s epitaph, bring hope into the picture.
Sir Walter Raleigh’s Epitaph
Even such is time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days!
But from this death, and grave, and dust,
The Lord will raise me up, I trust.
Despite being written in October 1618 (the story goes that Raleigh wrote it the night before he was executed), the epitaph’s language is pretty straightforward. I’ll help you through a couple of less common phrases—and you’ll be able to perform the poem with confidence, which will help others understand too.
- Even such = an old-fashioned way of saying “it’s like this, ya’ll”
- in trust = when you put something in trust, you give it to someone else to manage for you, who’s supposed to give it back to you later, hopefully with interest
Try these tips to help make your performance of Sir Walter Raleigh’s epitaph come alive.
- Even such is time, which takes in trust
- Form your hands like you are pulling something toward you
- Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
- Spread your arms to include everything
- And pays us but with age and dust;
- Stroke your face like you have wrinkles
- Shuts up the story of our days!
- Move your hands like you are shutting a book quickly
- But from this earth, this grave, this dust
- Spread your hands to indicate everything
- The Lord will raise me up, I trust.
- Make an upward motion
Use this recording to memorize the poem. Keep going over it on repeat until you’ve got it.
Go Forth and Perform
So next time you’re walking through a cemetery, or having a sober conversation about death, take the opportunity to perform Sir Walter Raleigh’s epitaph, and throw a little hope into the equation.