When I was in junior high I had the opportunity to take one of the best trips of my life. My dad, my grandpa and I jumped in the car and drove to upstate New York where we spent a few days searching old library records and talking to people while we researched our family genealogy. After a lot of microfilm and census records, we ended up driving through little communities in the foothills of the Appalachians looking for certain landmarks related to our family history, leading us into the yard of a rural house.
We were looking for was a small cemetery that we couldn’t seem to find. As we pulled into the driveway, the owner came out to greet us (and probably to figure out who the strange people with a Minnesota license plate were at his house). We asked if he could direct us to the cemetery, and his response wasn’t what we expected.
“Oh, sure. It’s in the back yard.”
Immediately behind his house, in an overgrown clearing bordered by woods, we found the cemetery (and my dad, grandpa and I all agreed we wouldn’t want to live in a house with a cemetery as a backyard). The most recent headstone we saw was over 100 years old. After a good amount of searching, we finally found a gravestone with the same last name as our ancestor, dated in the mid-19th century.
All of that made me think about what we do to be remembered. Here was an ancestor of mine from 150 years before me, and I can still know her name, who her family was, when she was born, and when she died. I couldn’t really learn anything substantive about her-what kind of food did she like? Was she outgoing or quiet? What was her life’s greatest achievement? This was all made more real when my grandpa passed away from cancer shortly after that trip. How would he be remembered? Now, 20 years later, I’m describing my grandpa to my little girls, telling them how much their Great Grandpa Warren would have loved them.
The more historically important (or rich) a person is, the more that is done to remember them. But time marches on, and much is lost-I sometimes wonder if I would still be able to find that little cemetery in the backyard today.
Sometimes, however, the past can be recovered and learned from. That is the theme behind the amazing story in the book The Fisherman’s Tomb. The book recounts the decades-long archeological and historical search for the apostle Peter’s tomb beneath the Vatican. Peter’s tomb, which had been hidden from the Roman’s in the first and second centuries, had been lost for the better part of 2000 years, until a series of event over the span of decades led to the archeological excavation of the Necropolis, an ancient cemetery that St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican had been built over, and the eventual recovery and identification of Peter’s remains.
The story revolves around popes, a series of Vatican officials fighting over political power, a ground-breaking woman that led the archeology, and a rich American oil tycoon that secretly financed the entire project. While the book is not the most well-written book you will every read, the story contained in it is one that is most certainly interesting and highly-engaging.
For me, a story like this raises a lot of questions: how do we remember great men and women of the past? Where is the balance between honoring a great leader of the church like Peter and not making too much of a mere human that God used in mighty ways? What do we make of building huge, ornate structures that point to the glory of God, but also cost extraordinary amounts of money, time and effort?
Some day I hope to visit the Vatican, and specifically the Necropolis. It takes a lot of planning ahead of time, but to be that surrounded by history seems staggering, especially for someone that lives in a state that is newer than almost anything found in the entire city!
I’m not Catholic (not even close), but I respect and appreciate the history and tradition of the Catholic church. This story helps remind us that there is a lot to be discovered, and learned, from history. The tenaciousness of those that pursued this hunt for the truth over the span of decades is admirable. I hope that every pursuit of truth is just as dogged.