There is a beautiful old cemetery located in Mystic, CT. Established in 1853, Elm Grove was designed in what is described as the Victorian Era of cemeteries, where families were intended to stroll and relax comfortably on the park-like grounds. My wife and I, being history buffs and on vacation in the Mystic area last week, took the opportunity to stroll through these remarkable grounds.

Set on a large tract of gently rolling and heavily treed acreage, the cemetery is bordered by Greenmanville Road to the east, and the Mystic River to the west. The dull rumble of traffic from Interstate 95, a development unforeseen in 1853 and which crosses the river just north of the cemetery, becomes almost undiscernible background noise as the tranquil atmosphere of the place draws you in.

A cemetery is always an interesting place for reflection. It is a location where those who exist walk amongst those who no longer do; those of our past whose spirits have long since departed this “mortal coil”. It is a dichotomy of the current age and era versus a time largely gone and mostly forgotten. As I looked out over the thousands of headstones and markers, I could not help thinking about the lives and personalities they were intended to memorialize. Every piece of marble or granite in that cemetery represented a person who once existed, each with a unique life and individual story. They are, sadly and almost without exception, life stories completely lost as the years have counted by.

One of the graves I came across marked the final resting place of an 8-year-old boy. He passed in the 1860’s. His parents, who died many years after him, were buried by his side. His rough and heavily weathered tombstone contained a statement that made me recognize the fleeting nature of relevance that truly awaits us all. The notation, placed at the very bottom of the headstone, no doubt at the behest of grieving parents, read “Gone But Not Forgotten”. It is a promise, however well intended, that simply could not withstand the unforgiving ravages of time. 

The harsh reality, of course, is that this 8-year-old boy has been all but forgotten, as have many of the 13,000 people resting in Elm Grove Cemetery. It is a process as natural as evolution itself. And it will, with exceedingly rare exception, happen to us. Our transitory existence on this earth is eventually destined to be lost to the ages. For most of us, our one-time existence will be reduced to nothing more than an obscure notation on a genealogy chart of the not so distant future.

The life story we are creating today will probably not be known or told 200 years from now, so we should make the most of what we can while we are able.

This, of course, brings me to the power of the dash. “The Dash” is a poem written by Linda Ellis (available here). It discusses the existence of dates listing the span of a person’s life, with a year of birth, year of death, and a dash separating the two. The gist of the poem is that the years listed do not matter, it is how the person “spent their dash” that determines the value and quality of their life.

Indeed, your dash will come to represent and eventually supercede your life story.

We are just under a year from the date where friend and fellow workers’ compensation blogger David DePaolo passed away unexpectedly. DePaolo, by all indications, spent his dash pretty damn well. He had a loving family, lived life to the fullest, and created a lasting legacy within the industry. His efforts to improve the image of workers’ compensation, best exemplified by the Annual CompLaude Awards & Gala, may indeed continue a positive trend to achieve the goals he sought. Additionally, his children will live on, carrying lessons and impressions learned from the man in their youth. All of this will, like ripples on a pond, continue to expand outward and affect the future. That is the legacy of his dash.

And I guess that was the lesson for me, as I stood in a cemetery on a gray cloudy morning in Mystic, CT. The impact of our dash can live on, even if our stories can’t. Our life decisions, our actions; how we spend our “dash”, can impact a future we will never see, long after our names and life stories have faded from public memory.

Invest your efforts in the dash. Its heritage has the power to endure far more than any story we could tell.

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