I’m writing the first draft of this week's offering on Dylan Lee Miller's birthday, March 22, 2017. He would have turned 13 this day.
I never met Dylan. It's a pretty good bet that very few people ever met him. My part in his story began on January 3, 2009.
Since 2003, I had often visited the Mariawald retreat house in Shillington, Pennsylvania. On those visits, I had gotten into the habit of seeking a quiet space outdoors by walking through a nearby cemetery, the subject of a previous blog post.
Near the back edge of the cemetery, I tripped over a temporary marker in the winter-brown grass and gravel. It read Dylan Lee Miller, March 22, 2004-March 22, 2004. It was askew and mold had begun to encroach on the lettering. It struck me like a bullet. This child was buried five years ago, and there was no gravestone, no permanent marker.
Clearly there would be none; the temporary marker was well on its way to the corruption that dooms all things material. There may be a record somewhere in the cemetery archives of the plot and its resident, but this boy's grave was going to disappear sooner rather than later. It was in the uppermost reach of the cemetery by the wooden fence that divides the graveyard from the forested ridge; it would surely go unnoticed.
Nearby was another temporary marker just as old as Dylan’s, but it was decorated with Christmas flowers. No stone, but someone had remembered recently. For Dylan there was no evidence of remembrance. The decaying temporary marker seems to have been unnoticed and untouched.
Just as they had in 2003, the words of John Donne’s Meditation XVII bubbled up:
No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
For Donne, every time he heard a funeral bell tolling a stranger’s death, he was reminded not only of his own mortality, but more importantly his oneness with the unknown dead, and, therefore, with all of humanity.
Although Dylan was only alive perhaps a few hours, I felt diminished by Dylan’s death. I ached at the thought of his marker disappearing. When the bell tolled for Dylan, it tolled for me, and the peals of that tolling echoed in my spirit.
Determined to at least stem the tide against the decaying marker, I found some artificial flowers that had blown from their graves and shoved them into the ground in front of the marker. I fixed the marker as best I could and then gathered several large rocks and used them to surround it.
I wondered all that night: Why was there no marker after five years? Someone loved him enough to give Dylan a full name rather than bury him as simply “Infant,” which one can often see in cemeteries.
What happened to Dylan’s parents? Are they themselves dead? Are they simply too poor to Mark the grave? Are they able but unwilling for some reason? So I pray for the forebears of Dylan Lee Miller.
On my next trip, some months later, the marker was still there, but the stones had been removed. I wanted to do something, but what?
The convent and retreat house where I was staying were once part of a very large and wealthy estate. In the woods there were the remains of an old hunting lodge. Only the foundation and the slate roof tiles survived.
Here, I came upon a nearly rectangular piece of slate. It was much thicker than most pieces. One side was smooth. I thought I could fashion it into a grave marker for Dylan.
After dinner, I put the slate in the car and drove to a drug store, where I bought a permanent marker and a ruler. I took the slate back to the room and scrubbed it in the tub. While it was drying I discovered writing on the back. Scratched into the stone were some words I could not decipher, except for “give them life abundantly.” Could this be a
reference to Jesus’ words , “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” in John 10:10? Someone had already turned the stone into a marker of sorts, so I took that as a good sign.
I wrote Dylan's name and dates on the front with the words “We will meet in our father's house.” I took it to the cemetery and laid it over the temporary marker. It had two holes in it because it had once been a shingle, and into these I shoved the artificial flowers as a way to somewhat fix it. I prayed that the groundskeeper would be merciful and would leave the marker alone.
My last visit was in 2013, and the marker was still there.
Every person’s death diminishes me, even if that person was stillborn or lived less than the span of a single day. Dylan's grave reminds me, as the tolling bell reminded Donne, that I cannot help but be involved in all of mankind.
Rest, Dylan. Someone thought of you today. You're part of the history of mankind, a part of my history, a part of every person’s history.
Donne was right.
(c) 2017 Larry Pizzi
50 years of photographs and 35 years of keeping a commonplace book.