We came upon the graves suddenly, part way round a muddy walk in the grey half-light of a January afternoon.
They are protected by the National Trust now, a low wall like a sheepfold enclosing six weatherbeaten headstones and a tomb that mark the last resting places of the Hancock family: a father, John, and his children, who died of bubonic plague in 1666.
Only the mother, Margaret, survived and she is remembered today for having to drag the corpses away from the farm where they lived, then dig the graves herself.
Everywhere you go around the Derbyshire village of Eyam (pronounced ‘eem’) you see memorials to the people who died of plague in a few traumatic months nearly 350 years ago.
The headstones, the tourist signs and the little plaques on the walls of cottages commemorate an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice. For when plague arrived in the village, via some fleas that flew out of a piece of cloth the local tailor had ordered from London, the villagers decided they would not escape to neighbouring Sheffield but would remain in their homes in order to stop the disease spreading.
It was a voluntary quarantine and it almost certainly saved the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the north of England.
But it cost them dear. More than 250 people died out of a population of just 800. The rector, William Mompesson, wrote in a letter to his uncle: ‘I may truely say our Town has become a Golgotha, a place of skulls; and had there not been a small remnant of us left, we had been as Sodom and like unto Gomorrah. My ears never heard such doleful lamentations. My nose never smelt such noisome smells, and my eyes never beheld such ghastly spectacles.’
I find the villagers’ selflessness hard to comprehend. It would have been so easy to walk out of Eyam, over the surrounding hills and into nearby places where there was no plague.
Instead, they stayed and if they did not catch the disease themselves they had to watch their families, friends and neighbours die slowly and painfully, their bodies covered in stinking, oozing sores.
The carved letters on the lid of John Hancock’s tomb were full of rainwater but gradually we managed to spell them out:
‘Remember man, as thou goest by, as thou art now, even once was I, as I doe now, so must thou lye. Remember man that thou shalt die’.
Perhaps this is the clue to how the villagers stuck to their courageous decision. Unlike us, they lived in a time when death was on display all the time, not sanitised and shut away in institutions.
They also had a moral framework that made it hard for them to kid themselves that their actions had no consequences.
I don’t pretend to have the answers to why there is so much suffering in the world, or why some people seem to get so much more of it than others.
I also know that most of us are not called to make the extreme sacrifices that the villagers of Eyam did in the 17th century.
But I did go away from the place wondering whether part of living a daring life might be having the courage to look death squarely in the face and let that reality shape more of my decisions.