Mind Matters — From Cemetery to Science

Now that I have moved to Massachusetts, I miss the blues and purples of the Siberian squill and glory of the mountain that carpet the forest of Winterthur. So, I come to the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge to look for nature’s beauty among the dead, whose remains rest there. I can see Boston’s Prudential Center as well as Sanders Theatre in Harvard Square. It’s a different walking experience from Winterthur or Longwood because I hear the almost white noise of constant traffic in the distance—maybe I could pretend it’s the ocean humming. Of course, the biggest difference are the tombstones that blossom beneath the stately pines, cedars, and sycamores—actually all species of trees must be here.

It is indeed a reflection on the transience of life, yet how important the dead remain to the living. I sit by one memorial that commemorates the death of a seventeen-year-old Harvard student who took ill and died in 1833. His remains, the memorial notes, are buried in Baltimore, Maryland, in a family plot. I consider that his parents, who were then so burdened with grief, have long since died. But the remembrance of their son’s “piety, talents, great industry, gentle and graceful manners” live on, etched in granite.

Many of the memorials honor the short lives of infants and children. Before antibiotics and other advances in medicine, infants and children could die from any number of illnesses. Their families are no longer suffering the pain of their loss but the statues of children, lambs, or angels remind us of their sadness that once was palpable.

Yes, walking through Mt. Auburn reminds us of our own mortality and how fragile life is. However, it also makes me think of how grateful I am for the science and research that has made life—quite frankly—more livable. I remember my mother’s fears about infant mortality before the advent of penicillin. I remember how polio had stricken my godmother when she was a toddler and how grateful I was as a nine-year-old to get that sugar cube that was the polio vaccine.

Science and medical research is never done because the pursuit of knowledge is unending. Odd how walking in a revered cemetery can bring me round to thinking about life. Surely those parents who buried their children or the husbands of those mothers who died in childbirth would have preferred to live in a time when antibiotics, vaccines, and 21st-century surgery were available—and accessible—to everyone.

On April 22nd, there will be across the country Rallies and Marches for Science. (See marchforscience.com.) We are at a critical moment of history when we as a nation are wavering in our respect for scientific and medical research. We are wavering in our acceptance of the need for health care for all.

We have to remember how far we have come and choose to continue to go forward, not backward. Without the advances in scientific and medical research that we have already made, where would we be? No, such research won’t make us immortal, but it has given a better life to us mortals.