A Walk Among the Tombstones

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson (American essayist and philosopher)

Macabre walks through graveyards help peel away the stress from our mortal coil. The stories on gravestones can urge us to rewrite our own story before it’s too late.

Kirkoswald is a tiny unassuming village on Scotland’s rugged southwest coast. With a population in the low hundreds, a single restaurant, and sole cab driver, Kirkoswald doesn’t exactly sell itself as a place to inspire life-affirming revelations. Yet, it offers more than meets the visitor’s eye.

Escaping the stresses of work, I visited the quaint Scottish village with friends after a hike in the nearby hills. Whilst the hike battered my bones and redirected my work-weary focus, the single restaurant on Kirkoswald’s main street provided the hearty calories my body craved after a day’s walking. And it was just across the road, in the middle of the seemingly unremarkable hamlet, that I came across a very human reminder of how unimportant my work stresses were.

Kirkoswald’s Old Kirkyard (kirk being of Scottish and Norse descent in reference to a church) hides the 13th century remains of the church where famous Scots king Robert the Bruce was once baptised. The visible church ruins, built later in the 1700s, cocoon the original Medieval site and the baptismal font of Scotland’s sword-wielding royal ancestor. If you were to walk around the church graveyard, as I did, you’d see that the upright gravestones encircle the church ruins, atop a ring of vibrant green grass.

The inscribed gravestones are the eternal congregation of the abandoned church.

A closer look at the gravestones, tall and small, grand and grim, reveal short stories of the little village’s famous kin. Two of the gravestones salute the maternal grandparents of Scotland’s most celebrated poet, Robert Burns. Another grave rests a man who inspired the famous Burns’ poem, Tam o’ Shanter.

From a tiny town in rural Scotland, my friends and I had walked among the forgotten beginnings of regal giants and literary heroes. Nothing remained of their daily grind, their stresses and woes; only the stones that honour who they were remain visible. When I needed it most, when work stresses had wrapped an ethereal hand around my throat, the ancient church in the quiet of Kirkoswald reminded me of a humbling and healthy perspective on what genuinely matters.

Kirkyards and castles tell selected stories of yesteryear’s royalty, yesteryear’s celebrities, yesteryear’s politics; holding only the thinnest slices of a much richer past. Today, the people commemorated in those crumbling vestiges of history are just characters for Sunday afternoon stories. They are threads in a tapestry of modern tourist sites.

Whilst castles and churches decay, the gravestones in their grounds grow moss-covered and acid-washed. The minutia of the lives now lost to the dirt slowly but surely become unreadable and irrelevant. The stresses those people felt are no more. They are utterly absent.

Visiting ancient places as modern tourists gives us fading mementos of times gone by. A walk through any place like Kirkoswald’s Old Kirkyard shows, in plainest view, what will inevitably become of us. Our mental stresses in life become less than dust in death. My own stresses revolved around being ‘picked’ from various applications I was writing at the time, and so the most unexpected revelation for me was this:

Now, more than in the prime of castles and kirkyards, the world offers permission-free opportunities to make our individual stories matter. You don’t have to be rich. You don’t have to be royalty. You don’t need to stress over permission. You don’t need to wait to be picked. If any of us are somewhere with the privilege of writing or scrolling a blog, chances are we’re in a place where we can make a difference to someone’s life if we really want to. No questions asked, no permission necessary. For those of us who fell out in a part of the world where we have a fighting chance to thrive, the Information Age enables us to do as musician Paul Simon sings about in Rewrite:

“I’m gonna change the ending /

Gonna throw away my title /

And toss it in the trash”

If we are bound to become the forgettable footnotes for tomorrow’s tourists, if we are to be the next generation of Medieval has-beens and graveless goners, what do we want our story to be?

Whilst challenging nihilistic, questioning your route to the grave is a simultaneously sobering and emboldening eye-opener.

The story that’s playing out in your life now might be the one that washes off a gravestone or drifts off as charred ashes into the wind. If you don’t like the current arc in the story of you, what would you rather it be? If someone in your care needs to hear the same challenge, how will you encourage them to work on their own rewrite before it’s too late?

Dr Marc Reid is a PhD chemist, academic research leader, and safety entrepreneur based in Glasgow, Scotland.

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Dr Marc Reid

Dr Marc Reid

Academic Scientist | Author | Entrepreneur