We forget how ever present death was for all the generations before us, especially death of young children.
We tend to think of death as a country for the old. It was not so then. People of all ages were vulnerable, the cold calculus of contagion meant that often if a disease got into a household parents would lose some or all of their children in a matter of days.
Parental bereavement came not only by the sudden stroke of a gunshot or accident; with tragic frequency they had to watch, desperate and powerless as death took its agonizing time with their children, who writhed as parasites dissolved their bowels or languished delirious in parching fevers. Nowadays, parents who lose a child have to go in search of support. No one, it seems, really knows how to talk to them. Parental bereavement is alien to most of us. But 150 years ago, death of a child was a common denominator among American families.
It's remarkable that a tragedy so pervading, and so intense, has not been more considered by historians in examining the temper of the times. This grim fact of life seems to me to explain so much about the shape of 19th century American minds, especially where they seem different from ours: The determination to make something of oneself, the importance of family.
As Haines's letters suggest, not just the intensity of American religion but the form of it, so full of resurrection and the need to keep in God's good graces at every moment, seems to have been guided by the realities of death in that era. The hope of meeting in another world and knowing one another in the flesh again was the only solace.
We are no doubt a blessed and fortunate people but death still comes to all of us. May the certain fact of our death inform our lives in this 21st century and draw us to a more expanded consciousness so we live more abundantly and with true compassion.