At 5pm at our Meeting House on New Haven’s Green, Center Church will mark Ash Wednesday with a brief service and distribution of ashes. This is a distinctly un-Puritan — and not very historically Congregationalist — tradition.
I split off from rust belt Catholicism to join the United Church of Christ out east many years ago. When I asked about differences in Lenten practices, the minister who led my adult confirmation class explained that the forehead smudge of ashes worn all day was still not done at many Congregationalist-heritage UCC churches. This, she explained, was in keeping with the Puritan tradition of not putting on such a ritualized public show of one’s faith. (She also thought that raisins were “too showy” to include in most baked goods, so we are talking about hard-core Yankee WASPdom here and I say that with affection and respect.)
Ash Wednesday is one of the few remaining occasions on which the modern church deals so frankly with the finality of death. It’s the graphic directness of the Puritan winged death’s head ascending without return, versus the friendly hovering of the angelic cherub. Remember that you are from dust, and to dust you shall return.
The earliest members of our congregation and the New Haven Colony didn’t need to duck into the sanctuary on a Wednesday afternoon for a symbolic reminder.
From the founding of the colony in the 17th century until they finally began running out of space in the last years of the 18th, they buried thousands of their dead under the New Haven Green — sometimes by late night torchlight, often in mass graves — during the relentless series of epidemics that plagued them. In our own slice of the ancient burying ground of New Haven where undisturbed tombstones are still joined with select remains, children under the age of 18 make up 36% of the known burials our church “footprint” crypt. Women typically enjoy longer average life spans these days, but so far my renewed research shows that the average age at death for our adult men in the crypt was about 57, for women, 50. Sorting the data tells the story: of the men who survived past the age of 18, just 24.3% died before the age of 40, but 42.3% of women never made it past their 30s.
Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and the practices of Lent as related to death and mourning force ritual, calendar precision, and a linear narrative arc onto the thief in the night and the unpredictable ebb and crash of grief and renewal. Grove Street Cemetery, established in 1796, famously vetted and arranged the dead in pre-purchased plots, gridded and segregated along family, color and institutional lines. Before then, the norm was the riotous democracy of the ancient colonial burying ground, where individual stones were often positioned in an east-west orientation in anticipation of resurrection but there isn’t much predictable order beyond that.
“Be mindful of where you put your feet; stones are not always where you’re expecting them to be,” I warn visitors before each tour group is allowed down the stairs.
In the last eight months or so I have had occasion to think about death, and about other irretrievable losses. It has been a great privilege and comfort to walk among the stones that act as a visual tip of the iceberg for the hundreds — possibly more than a thousand — of those both known and unknown who lie interred in the New Haven Crypt, and to tell their stories, as much as we can know. The earliest inscriptions are a name and a date, perhaps even just initials. As the years go on we start seeing epitaphs, as the survivors allow themselves the indulgence of telling a story about their loved one to strangers like you and me, hundreds of years into their future.
As a Midwestern public high school student, everything I thought I knew about Puritan-heritage colonists came from reading Nathaniel Hawthorne stories. I’m still startled some days by the frank tenderness and vulnerability carved into stone on many of our monuments:
Remember that you are from dust, and to dust you shall return. For everything there is a season; a time to mourn and a time to dance. Leave the dead to bury the dead. But the consolation of history — of this sacred, intimate ground we steward and share as The First Church of Christ New Haven, of this great cloud of witnesses — is the anchor and balm for those who mourn all that has been (and eventually will be) lost.
Ten steps down from the church sanctuary, this unexpected place pulls you tight into the sanctuary of the traditional Jewish blessing for those navigating the unpredictable steps through grief:
Those who are worn out and crushed by this mourning, let your hearts consider this:
this is the path that has existed from the time of creation and will exist forever.
Many have drunk from it and many will yet drink.
As was the first meal, so shall be the last.
There is nothing new under the sun.