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Notre Dame cemeteries: Connecting students to the past and present

With the transition from “three snows after the forsythias bloom” to warmer springtime temperatures, I keep finding myself reflecting on how quickly the years have passed since I moved my stuff into Alumni Hall (before the remodeling!). Now I am finding myself doing all the things that I waited to do because I thought I had plenty of time. The list includes spending impactful time with friends and teammates, visiting the observatory, the natural history museum, the planetarium, the art museum and walking through the two cemeteries.

Recently, I visited the Notre Dame cemeteries where each gravestone tells a story. Cemeteries organize life and death in a way that conveys crucial information on the culture and history of those buried. Cemeteries are also a measure of time and connect students to the past and the present.

Notre Dame is home to two unique but quite different cemeteries. Just past the sister lakes, is the home of the Holy Cross Cemetery. Here, Brothers of Holy Cross are buried, including Father Hesburgh, Father Sorin and Father Corby. Right by the main entrance just off the road to get to the Dome, is the home to the Cedar Grove Cemetery. Cedar Grove is the final resting place for many noted contributors to the Notre Dame community like Coach Ara Parseghian, Gov. Joe Kernan and talk show host and comedian Regis Philbin. Cedar Grove Cemetery is about variation and individuality, while Holy Cross Cemetery is about equivalence and unity. The cemeteries reconnect families, friends and students to create and maintain social relationships by honoring and presenting those who have passed.

As I walk through the Holy Cross Cemetery, there is an overarching theme of unity rooted in faith, purpose and community—the driving beliefs of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Notably, all the gravestones are identical in the shape of a cross, containing the person’s date of birth, date of death and Holy Cross title. An even more inspiring feature in the cemetery is that influential members of the Holy Cross brotherhood such as Father Hesburgh and Father Sorin have the same exact gravestone as everyone allowing a student to transcend time and understand these influential contributors through a reflective lens.

In the Cedar Grove Cemetery, each gravestone is a unique reflection of a life in time. Although it may have a different atmosphere than Holy Cross, it still contains several features that drive student connections. For example, the gravestones of Norman Russell Nellis and his wife Anna Mae Nellis drew me in. On the top right of Norman’s gravestone, there is a message that reads, “Married Anna October 21, 1948.” Anna’s gravestone contains the same message. Additionally, both of their gravestones include pictures of themselves. Standing at their gravestones, I felt a deep connection with them both, creating a social connection and thinking about the campus then and now as I reflected on their gravestones. Most impactful for me, on the back of Lt. Col. Nellis’ gravestone, it included his military service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Including this feature on the gravestone made me develop a greater sense of appreciation and helped me develop a more intimate social connection with Norman Russell Nellis. Sadly, nearby, two of the Nellis’ sons are also buried. They were laid to rest before their parents. At that particular moment, I could not feel anything other than complete and utter sadness for the Nellis family. Parents should not bury their children.

Deep in my own thoughts, the change of classes and rush of students at the top of the hour drew me back to the present and away from the Nellis family. I ran to class and realized how time, memories and cemeteries are all a part of the human condition. As I made my way to class, I thought about those graves and imagined each person in their time walking across campus. They too looked up at the Golden Dome and we shared that inspiration and awe for the past, present and future. I also reflected on how fleeting time is and how it is likely our most precious gift. 

Nick Harris

graduate student

April 2

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.