Paradigm shifts can be difficult to see. They’re slow to develop, about a century in the making. But a cemetery can compress a century, so a stroll through a graveyard can highlight century-long shifts. My wife and I were recently reminded of this.
Kathy and I live near St. Anne’s cemetery in Annapolis. The graveyard has three sections, the second of which dates from 1793. It is the resting place of James Waddell, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy who, in 1881, built the home we now live in. We recently walked through St. Anne’s and found his grave. His epitaph reads: He now enjoys the fulfillment of his last wish—the eternal sunshine of the blessed light of Heaven.
This language dates from the early church, which was populated by cultural elites. Only they could afford headstones, so their epitaphs reveal cultural shifts. We routinely read testimonies to their confidence in Christ. We read how they reframed the grave as a place of rest, a koimeterion (our word “cemetery”), where the dead enjoyed a foretaste of the refrigerium, “the joyous refreshment of God’s paradise.”1
These epitaphs can be found in St. Anne’s, since it is the resting place of many elites. Waddell’s inscription is consistent with those of the 1700 and 1800s, including James Buchanan Henry (the nephew of President James Buchanan): “I believe in God and I adore Him… I bow down before the mysteries of the Bible and Gospel… I have full confidence that God permits me to call myself a Christian…” But St Anne’s also bridges two centuries, so it reflects a shift.
Epitaphs from St Anne’s twentieth century graves mostly feature just a name and the date of birth and death. Christian references are missing. We see a paradigm shift to a post-Christian culture. Thomas Kuhn, who coined “paradigm shift,” estimated it takes three generations—a century—for a shift to occur. The 1800s is the beginning of a shift to a post-Christian world. The twentieth marks the completion. A walk through a graveyard, if it dates from the 1700s, is a good place to see a tragic aftereffect of this shift. The faith is not taken seriously by our cultural elites.
The upside of observing graveyard shifts is there’s always another generation coming along. Millennials could be at the forefront of the next shift. Their fresh perspective will have broad cultural influence in the coming years. Surveys indicate that 54 percent of millennials have already started a business or have the desire to start one. The early church grew primarily by businesspeople. If Christian millennials learn how to connect Sunday to Monday, and gain cultural capital, they could start a shift. By the end of the twenty-first century, their epitaphs could tell a story of renewal.
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1 Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom (Malden: Blackwell, 1996), p 24-25.