Nothing like a walk in the cemetery to make you feel grateful. Not just for being on the right side of the turf but for being alive at this best of all possible times.
A visit to the cemetery in my hometown of Redding California made this clear. My guide was Mike Grifantini, an instructor at Shasta College, a local historian and “cemetery buff” who gives walking tours of the Redding Cemetery under the auspices of the Shasta Historical Society.
For all of its cares and woes, our world is a far better place than the one our 19th-century ancestors inhabited. “The good old days” were, in fact, terrible.
The oldest grave Grifantini pointed out was that of a month-old infant, family name Annear, who died in 1878. In 1900, about 1 in 10 American children died in the first year. Today it’s about 1 in 150.
Not far away is a six-foot-high stone monument to H. Cochran (1828-1917), who is buried with the three wives who preceded him in death. They presumably succumbed to the rigors of childbirth, the backbreaking drudgery of 19th-century housework (before our wealth of labor-saving electric appliances) or common injuries or infections that, in the days before antibiotics and improved hygiene, were too often fatal.
Throughout the cemetery, Grifantini pointed to graves of those who fought in war — “the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, two World Wars — it goes on and on.” We paused at the grave of Marcelle Lyons (August 1923 March 2008) whose headstone read “beloved wife, mother and grandmother” and “concentration camp survivor World War II.” A few steps away is the grave of Zong Neng Thao (1940 2000), who fought in a Hmong special forces guerilla unit in Laos during the Vietnam War.
Twentieth-century statism — in the form of Nazism, fascism and Communism — claimed an estimated 150 million lives. Fortunately, this killer’s been consigned to the ash heap of history.
Grifantini pointed out several graves with the death date of 1918, the year a flu pandemic killed millions around the world — the sort of disaster our modern-day vaccines and medical knowledge make almost unimaginable.
Near the Eureka Way entrance, we stopped at the grave of “the most famous person” in the cemetery. A modest brass plaque read: “Frank T. Crowe, Builder, October 12, 1882 February 26, 1946.” Crowe, Grifantini noted, was “world known” for supervising construction of Hoover Dam and Shasta Dam, his last project.
The vision and work of men like Crowe helped transform arid California into the country’s most populous state and the world’s agricultural breadbasket.
In the space of a century we’ve gone from worrying about getting enough nutritious food (who today remembers pellagra, goiter and rickets?) to worrying about an entirely unprecedented problem — obesity. Considering the course of human history, most of it aptly described as “nasty, brutish and short,” that’s a good problem to have.
The greatest single accomplishment of the 20th century, the most progress-filled 100 years in human history? In 1900 life expectancy in the U.S. was 47 years; by 1998 it was 77.
Environmental doomsayers like Thomas Malthus and Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich were wrong. Man is the ultimate renewable resource and our best hope for the future. Moore and Simon quote 19th-century economist Henry George: “Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens, but the more jayhawks the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens.”
(To sign up for Grifantini’s cemetery walk the next time you’re in Redding, call the Shasta Historical Society at 243-3720 or e-mail email@example.com.)
Freelance writer and FreedomFest regular Marc Beauchamp lives in far northern California. Among his former jobs he worked for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Kyodo News Service in Tokyo, Forbes magazine in LA and the Nasdaq Stock Market in Washington, D.C.E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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