It was carved with hand tools on a rough slab of native red rock: “Marcelito L. Baca – murio a la edad de 17 dias (died at the age of 17 days) – 1919”. It was planted upright over a grave in the pale dust of the “cementerio” – the cemetery – of the remote, tiny village of Contreras in central New Mexico.
Last Sunday, my wife, Roberta, myself, and our friends from Albuquerque, Byron and Jill, went on a rock-hounding expedition along the upper riverbed of the Rio Grande. Jill found a big grey rock stippled with black triangles: fossilized fish scales. Byron found some smooth, flat granites that might have served the Pueblo Indians as metates for grinding corn. Roberta found a thin, smooth piece of red sandstone with a perfect yellow circle on it. I found dozens of small, shiny agates and cherts, and glittering pieces of iridescent quartz. I found a weird, shiny, lumpy stone that looked like fossilized dinosaur poop. More likely, it was a concretion of iron precipitated out of red sandstone. All these rocks had been deposited far from their sources. They eroded out of cliffs high in the mountains, tumbled down arroyos into the course of the Rio Grande, and rolled southward with flash floods. The formation of these enchanting stones took eons, and their deformation took further millennia.
On our way back to Albuquerque, we stopped in the dusty town of Contreras and visited its burial ground. On this visit I began to understand why Jill is fascinated by old New Mexican graveyards. They evoke the history, and even the natural history, of that richly-storied state. Marcelito L. Baca lived 17 days. I stood before his resting place, grieving the lifetime that he might have had. But I mused that, in geologic time, my span of life is only trivially greater than his. His gravestone was formed from a dune of red sand that shifted in the wind 250 million years ago. Will either of us leave marks more lasting than those of the fish whose cuneiform scales marked that rock in the river’s rubble?
The earth is a graveyard of displaced stones and bones, ground to sand and turned into something else by the slowly churning earth. The periodic table lists the results of the decomposition and re-composition of the simple matter that ejected from the primordial “big bang”. In their dying explosions, the earliest stars alchemically made gold – and iron and all the other heavier elements – out of the dross of hydrogen and helium. Did something precious precipitate out of the short life of Marcelito L. Baca? Did love, in grief, move the hands that carved the irregular shapes of the letters on his rustic gravestone? Does love leach through the tragedies of human history and, over time, concentrate itself in powerfully positive manifestations? Is his gravestone a fossil of consciousness in evolution toward deeper compassion?
Carved above the words on the gravestone is the image of the cross. It focuses the eyes, and the soul, on the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Its intersection aims at a transcending meaning for the life and death of Marcelito, and for all of us. It invites us to imagine the person he could have become, had he lived longer – and what we can become together. The churning cosmos has concentrated tiny bits of itself into human beings, glittering gems of mind-matter. We’ve barely discovered ourselves. What shall we do with our precious days in this universe, vast in space in time? Can we cherish this life we’ve been given, and make the most of it through curiosity, creativity, and compassion – to honor the memory of Marcelito, and all forms of life and being that have come before us?
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California