Thoughts in a Cemetery

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Being distinguished, indeed, getting noticed, is increasingly difficult to accomplish. When you read a lot of history, you realize that anyone who managed to write coherently in the past few centuries seldom had difficulty getting a publisher, for instance. The key to getting noticed was publishing books, or being lucky enough to have landed a highly visible job. I was reminded of this, and was given a slight inferiority complex, by a recent visit to the Nassau Presbyterian Church’s cemetery in Princeton. I’ve gone by this cemetery dozens of times, but only recently took the time to get out and explore.

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History buffs will know that Aaron Burr is buried there. Burr was from a family of privilege; his father Aaron Burr, Senior, was one of the founders of the College of New Jersey, better known by its current name of Princeton University. The vice-presidential Burr was also the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, who also rests in this very graveyard where one hopes God is somewhat more forgiving of sinners than rhetoric might suggest. Although he was the third Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr is now remembered for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel not far from where my bus rumbles every workday. One kind of conflict exchanged for another. This odd and tragic duel ended Hamilton’s life and Burr’s career. As the bad boy “founding father” Burr has found a number of supporters posthumously. His grave is perhaps the most celebrated in Princeton. This despite the fact that President Grover Cleveland is only a few yards away.

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There are, however, more enlightened minds buried here as well. Being in the presence of Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann is a humbling experience. The presence of Albert Einstein, perhaps Princeton’s most famous resident, is, however, missed. Einstein was cremated and his ashes scattered at an undisclosed location. Standing in the cemetery in which so many of his compatriots rest on an overcast, damp December day, it felt like some slight compensation. Political power and ambition often lead to obscurity. I look to those who would be president and shudder. Here in this quiet cemetery, thinking of the common fate of us all, self-aggrandizement seems to be in such bad taste. Einstein, as so often, had it right. Those who are truly noteworthy seldom leave any traces in this world.

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