In two consecutive years, 1846 and 1847, a quarter of Ireland’s population perished in
what is called the “Potato Famine.” That misnomer attributes that disaster solely to natural
causes; whereas, the blame can be ascribed to something even more sinister. Other countries
in Europe at that time also experienced complete failures in their respective potato crops.
Here’s what made the crop failure in Ireland so devastating:
In the sixteenth century, the British began to deprive the people of Ireland of their
rights. Although Ireland is a fertile land, the produce of that land, wheat and barley and pork,
was exported to Britain, not by the choice of the Irish themselves. The Irish were not permitted
to consume what they had raised, with one exception – potatoes. When a blight destroyed
their means of sustenance, two million residents of Ireland starved to death or succumbed to
disease. Their only deliverance was to depart Europe on ships bound to other countries, most
notably the United States. On these vessels, the mortality rate among the passengers was
comparable to that of the slave ships of the same era.
On one such ship, the Mersey, the first fatality in the fifth week of the trans-Atlantic
voyage was a man known as Sam “Sweep” Sullivan. When Sweep died of an undetermined
cause, three women, also passengers, cleaned his body and prepared it for burial. The corpse
was deposited on a piece of sail cloth; thirty pounds of stones were placed at the feet; and the
edges of the shroud were sewn together. The stones, the body, and the canvas were then laid
on a plank, which, in turn, was balanced on the gunwale (that is, the side) of the Mersey. After
a brief service conducted by the captain, one end was elevated by a pair of sailors; and the
cocoon containing the body slid off the slab and plummeted feet-first toward the sea. It slipped
like a knife through the surface of the water. Its entry into its watery grave left hardly a trace,
barely a splash. A few bubbles may have betrayed the point of entry, but not even that
insignificant occurrence was certain.
Fellow passengers anticipating their own mortality remarked that it was as though
Sweep had never even existed. There was no one left to lament his passing. No one on board
and maybe no one left alive in Ireland would remember who Sam “Sweep” Sullivan had been.
(The preceding account has been abridged from Paddy’s Lament, Thomas Gallagher.)
Is that the fate which awaits us all, to live and die as to hardly make a ripple, and a
transitory one at that?
Several years ago on a frigid day with a biting wind, three figures shivered in a frozen
cemetery in Richardson County, Nebraska. The small group consisted of a funeral director, me,
and a middle-aged man. That was all. I conducted a brief service for the deceased, an elderly
woman who had lived and died in Lincoln. After the words which I spoke and the prayer which I
offered, the stranger asked if he could say a few words. Despite the cold, I consented.
The gentleman remarked that, as a boy, he had delivered newspapers to this woman;
and she had often invited him into her home for cookies. Over time, the two of them forged an
unlikely friendship. It was a relationship which endured throughout the years.
The boy eventually went to college and later law school. After he began to practice law,
the woman came to him for legal work. Their friendship continued until her death. And there
he was to pay eloquent respect to a woman who, it seemed, had left no mark in the world and
whose body in a few moments would slip below the rock-solid sod as Sweep had entered his
anonymous rest thousands of miles away and over one hundred fifty years ago.
At my brother’s eighth grade commencement in 1958, a song was sung. I remember
only the title, “No Man Is an Island.” Whether we know it or not, we are connected.
The Apostle Paul wrote:
“For none of us lives to himself,
and none of us dies to himself.
For if we live, we live to the Lord,
and if we die, we die to the Lord.
So then, whether we live
or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
Sam “Sweep” Sullivan did not live or die to himself. The woman whose body rests in a
remote graveyard in southeast Nebraska did not live or die to herself. No one does.
The Good News is we are connected. We belong.
You are more than a few bubbles in the vast ocean of time.
You are more than a mound of dirt in a forlorn cemetery. You are one of Gods’ beloved
I know this because I know that Christ died for each of us.
You are loved. You belong.