From Jonathan Edwards to 9-11

Posted: Sep 01, 2005 12:00 AM

PRINCETON, N.J. -- One historian in 1878 called Princeton Cemetery the "Westminster Abbey of the United States" because of the prominence (Jonathan Edwards, for example) of those buried within. But there's no part of it more touching than a new section with three clean tombstones: Michael Joseph Cunningham, Dec. 24, 1961-Sept. 11, 2001; John Joseph Ryan, June 9, 1956-Sept. 11, 2001; and Kevin Patrick York, Sept. 6, 1960-Sept. 11, 2001.
Nearly four years later, and those deaths plus nearly 3,000 others still go down hard. So do this week's hurricane deaths. Few people, though, have encountered more grieving families than Claude Sutphen, 72, who has spent his last 53 years working (and living in a house) at the Princeton Cemetery. He takes it all in stride, and even has a spot for himself picked out beneath a weeping English beech tree: "I'll be there."

 At a time when fathers rarely pass on callings to sons, Sutphen represents continuity. He began working at the cemetery in 1952, when he married the daughter of the superintendent; that superintendent's father had been superintendent early in the 20th century. Sutphen became foreman and then served as superintendent from 1972 through 1998. Now, his son is superintendent (and his grandson manages another New Jersey cemetery).

 Sutphen, of course, did not know Grover Cleveland, the late 19th century president buried here, but he offers idiosyncratic personal assessments of the recently departed. For example, some may remember Eugene Wigner because he shared the Nobel Prize in 1963 for research on atomic particles, but Sutphen says with a twinkle, "His pants were too short, and he wore no socks."

 He also knows each dogwood, each cedar and each oak in the cemetery. When we strolled throughout it, he was excited to see a sapling next to the trunk of a diseased elm tree -- he'll soon put the sapling in a pot, tend it and try to start a new tree. Eden was a garden that knew not death, but Claude Sutphen is a gardener who lives with death every day.

 The cemetery shows the fleetingness of fame and wealth. Anyone remember John Finley, a Princeton politics professor who was also editor in chief of The New York Times until he retired in 1938? Sutphen pointed out the modest tombstone of Howard T. Behrman, 1912-1985: "He gave $20 million to Princeton University, and I bet no one even looks at this."

 The desire to inspire at least a look may explain a trend over the past 20 years: "Monuments getting bigger."

 The tombstone of William H. Hahn Jr. displays the famous line, "I told you I was sick." John O'Hara, a well-regarded mid-20th-century novelist, penned these straightforward words for placement over his grave: "He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well." But the tombstone of Ashbel Green, who was Princeton's eighth president two centuries ago, teaches, "His mortal remains were buried in this grave with many friends grieving, but not without the most blessed hope."

 Sutphen's favorite tombstone inscription is, "In loving memory." I like this one on the tombstone of the Charles Hodge (1797-1878), who wrote a terrific three-volume systematic theology: "He stood for learning and vital piety." I like even more the adjacent tombstone of wife Sarah Hodge (1798-1849): "She lived in love and died in faith. Truthful woman, delightful companion, ardent friend."

 Hodge had 81 years to develop his vital piety, and his wife only 51. The three men murdered on Sept. 11, 2001 and buried here had only 39 to 45 years. Some hurricane victims this week had fewer, and that reminds all of us to prepare for what could happen any time.

 Matthew Henry, an 18th century Bible commentator read by some of the 11 early Princeton presidents buried here, stated that, "Dying saints may be justly envied, while living sinners are justly pitied." The bones of all are here, under these trees, and Sutphen plus a greater Gardener know where each lies.