Life, death and burning libraries

I’ve just read “The Mockingbird Next Door, Life with Harper Lee,” by Marja Mills. A journalist, Mills arrived in Harper Lee’s hometown from Chicago and ingratiated herself with the Lee sisters, Alice (who is over 100-years-old now), and Harper, the author of perhaps the best-loved novel in U.S. history, who was nearly 80 when Mills moved in next door.

Harper Lee was notorious for avoiding journalists, and now she, or her representatives, say she gave no authorization for the book. But clearly, Mills spent months fishing, feeding ducks and drinking coffee with the reclusive writer. As part of her arrangement, Mills agreed to avoid certain subjects, and consequently the book seems a little banal. She says Lee is the best conversationalist this side of the Mississippi, but she offers few good examples.

The book’s best quote, an African proverb, came from a friend of Lee’s, and is actually the point of this column: “Every time an old man dies a library burns down.”

I’ve thought about those burning libraries this fall, as my husband and I have searched for old cemeteries where my long-dead relatives are buried. A move to my Midwestern roots from beautiful Alaska has revived my interest in genealogy.

I’ve discovered that, despite the fact that my brothers and I consider ourselves one hundred percent Irish, we have a limb on the family tree that harkens back to England, Germany and Virginia where our great-great-grandfather kept slaves and fought for the Confederacy.

I’ve visited the graves of all eight of my great-grandparents this summer, which is pretty amazing considering where they all started their journey.

They came from several counties in Ireland, as well as New York, Pennsylvania, and yes, Old Virginia. And now, they all lie buried under rich Nebraska soil, and without this strange and inexplicable confluence, the grandchild I look forward to in Pennsylvania would never be the person he (or she) is going to be.

Obviously the ancients felt the same way about genealogy, only they couldn’t rely on But you only have to look to Jesus’ genealogy in Scripture to know that who you came from mattered then as now. It was important to establish Jesus’ lineage to King David.

The great thing about faith is that our spiritual lineage is not just through bloodlines. Just as people who are adopted into a family are every bit as vital a link in the family tree, those of us who believe have just as strong a link to Jesus, the firstborn of many brothers and sisters, as those Eliuds and Jeconiahs in his family tree.

A trip to a graveyard brings with it a definite sense of presence, a profound feeling for the continuing mystery of life. This feeling of presence is especially strong for those of us who believe in the Communion of Saints.

But it also brings a hundred questions. How I wish I could sit down with my grandmother and ask her about her childhood journey from Virginia, about her family’s Dunkard faith, an Anabaptist sect. But that story-filled library burned down long ago.

Cemeteries remind me of the brevity of this mortal life. They also inevitably call to mind the Empty Tomb.

And they speak to the futility of today’s trends, the latest fashions, the things we worry about in this short life. They bring home the reality of faith’s importance, as well as unanswerable questions about the mystery of God.

Yes, cemeteries are full of questions now that those libraries have burned. But to the thoughtful visitor, they also offer some profound answers.


The writer, formerly from Anchorage, now lives in Omaha, Neb.

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