“Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.”
We read today from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” as the twelve coal miners who perished in the aftermath of a freak explosion are laid to rest. Home for them was the small town of Cleveland, West Virginia, where “everybody knows everybody.” Their death was a tragedy, seemingly one that could not have been prevented; as of now, the presumed cause is a bolt of lightning. Yet the fact that the circumstances brought national attention and grief, including the pathos of the search and the bathos of the terrible result after the initial erroneous good news, was a flash of justice wrought by fate. Because it is just that the nation be reminded of these sturdy men who are mainstays of our civilization.
“For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.”
At the conclusion of the memorial service on Sunday for Jerry Groves, one of the deceased miners, his son-in-law, Mike Rose, asked the coal miners in the audience to rise to their feet and be recognized. Ten men stood and Rose told them: “You are the backbone of this state and this country. Always hold your head high and tell everyone you are a coal miner.” Truer words are rarely spoken. These men go daily into the bowels of the earth to extract the gifts of fuel that the Creator secreted there, available to mankind if it is equal to the labor of hacking, heaving and hoisting. We take coal for granted in its various uses, as a liquid fuel, as steam coal burning to generate electricity, as the main energy source in cement production, as coking coal to power the blast furnaces that produce iron and steel. None of that is possible without these hardy boys.
“Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.”
This was a very solid group of men; we need to mourn them and learn to appreciate more those that remain. They work hard and are not wont to complain. Nor do they come home and spew a gospel of resentment. Instead, they live a friendly small-town existence with strong religious affiliation: no atheists in that foxhole. Look at the beautiful letters that they left their families when they sensed that death was near. No bitterness, no complaint, just love and reassurance to parents, spouses and children. What does it tell you about the character of a person when his primary concern in his dying moments is to mollify his loved ones with the image of him passing painlessly?
“Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”
These twelve decent men form a jury of our peers. Are we equal to being judged by them? We can look to them, their acceptance of life in all its obligation and death in all its abrogation, and learn a great deal. Perhaps this what the Talmud (Sabbath 105b) means when it promises: “Whoever cries for a decent man, God forgives all their sins.” By showing that deep down we admire decency, we show that all the foolishness that we too often pursue is not an expression of our true essence.
It is important for us as individuals and as a society to always value such people. They constitute a national treasure, a fine expression of our humanity. We sit surrounded by their handiwork; we use their products everywhere; we walk upon the earth underneath which they toil; their memory must be always alive in our consciousness. As the Talmud goes on to add: “Whoever sheds tears for a decent person, God counts them and places them in His special storehouse, as it is said, ‘You recount my wanderings; put my tears into Your bottle, are they not in Your book?’ (Psalms 56:8)”
Let us shed some tears, my friends. For the good folks who build our country, who enhance our lives, every single day. And for the simple virtues of heart and hearth that they embody, which were modeled for us so poignantly by these twelve decent men.
“On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.”