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Calvary Cemetery and its lessons on life

A statue of St. Mary holding Christ adorns one of the many gravestones in Calvary Cemetery.
A statue of St. Mary holding Christ adorns one of the many gravestones in Calvary Cemetery.
Guy T. Montgomery

At the intersection of Newburg Road and Shady Lane sits one of Louisville’s most tranquil historic places: Calvary Cemetery – a stretch of two hundred acres partially bordered by the South Fork of Beargrass Creek. Calvary is the largest of the cemeteries cared for by the Archdiocese of Louisville, and since its founding in 1921, nearly 55,000 of Louisville’s Roman Catholics have been laid to rest there. The cemetery serves as a final home for several of Louisville’s past Catholic leaders: Archbishops John Floresh, Thomas Kelly, and Thomas McDonough are interred there, as well as Bishop Charles G. Maloney.

That said, the cemetery is also set apart from its peers because of its beauty. For some, the name Calvary may suggest a place more intimidating than it is beautiful: it hearkens back to the site outside of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified – the so-called “place of the skull.” (Calvary is derived from the Latin word for "skull," calvaria.) Despite its name, though, behind the stone pillars and iron gates that face Newburg Road, the cemetery proves to be a peaceful expanse of land.

Beargrass Creek –which serves as the graveyard’s western and southern borders– not only provides irrigation to the acreage’s rolling hills, but is also wooded along its banks. While the cemetery is tucked between St. Agnes Parish School, Norton Audubon Hospital, and the diamonds of Germantown Baseball, Inc., one does not realize how close those other entities are because of Calvary’s semi-perimeter of forest. Throughout the cemetery, birds flit from tree to shrub to tombstone, and thick, emerald-colored grass grows between its many grave-markers.

This past Sunday afternoon I took a stroll through Calvary, and I was struck by how a place so seemingly morbid can, in fact, renew one’s awe in the constant regeneration of new life. As I walked, I saw many reminders of the mortality we all face. For one, the cemetery is –needless to say– covered with tombstones, and one cannot help but think of John Donne’s telling words: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Upon seeing a gravestone engraved with my family name, Donne’s warning rang true anew.

There were also other reminders. On top of one grave, a loved one had left behind what was once a large floral arrangement. By Sunday, however, all the bouquet’s blooms and greenery had since wilted in the August heat, and any color the arrangement had once held had turned to brown. The sight was quite a reflection of what it means to live in this world: that even the flowers we use to honor the passed, must pass away, too.

Still, in spite of the brown flowers and silent stones, I left Calvary this past weekend more at ease with the nature of the world than distressed by it. John Prine’s lyrics from the song “Fish and Whistle” also come to mind: “I’ve been thinking lately ‘bout the people I meet, / the car-wash on the corner and the hole in the street, / the way my ankles hurt with shoes on my feet, / and I’m wonderin’ if I’m gonna see tomorrow.” While a visit to Calvary Cemetery may make you consider the inevitably of death or wonder –as we all, at times, do– if you’re “gonna see tomorrow,” I can attest that it has just as much potential to make you happy you got to see today.

• For Examiner.com, I’m Guy Montgomery.

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