Soothe me wi' tidings o' Nature's decay or The Burning of the Leaves: Whitterings, December 2007

Come Autumn, sae pensive,
in yellow and grey,
And soothe me wi' tidings o' Nature's decay….

Robert Burnes

As I write this it is November, the Month of the Dead. In many cultures it is the month that families and communities spend time actively remembering the dead and cleaning graves and churchyards. These customs come from the Feast of All Souls and the traditional Blessing of Graves on that Feast. In our own time the theme is emphasised by the observance of Remembrance Sunday recalling the fallen of the two World Wars. In Rawdon we follow the Mass for All Saints Sunday with the blessing of the Graveyard. Afterwards individuals clean the stones and graves of friends and family and wait there to say a prayer with the priest for the repose of the soul of their loved ones. I always end the blessing of graves with a visit to the simple grave of the first Rector of Rawdon, The Venerable Kenneth Naylor. The following Sunday, for Remembrance Day, we use the propers for All Souls Day. Thus we keep the duel nature of the two day feast of All Saints and All Souls.

In Rawdon the dead have been even more on our minds recently as we have just dedicated our parish Book of Remembrance. It has taken us four years to complete the difficult task of researching the deaths of all of the members of this parish during our almost two hundred year history. The book is kept in a glass case in the narthex underneath the War Memorial. The book is open and the page turned to the day. The constant reminder of those friends and members of our families that have gone before us is fascinating and humbling. People continue to single out names in the book after the service and point out the name a great grandmother who died on that day fifty years before or an ancestor a hundred years ago.

For Christians this constant reminder of the dead is comforting and natural. We believe in the Communion of Saints and the resurrection to eternal life. Our fundamental identity is that of those Baptised into the death and Resurrection of Christ. We are comfortable with death. We still understand its inevitability. We understand the bitter sorrow of the death of the young as well as the beauty of death of one who lived a long and honourable life. We in the church simply know death. We are not afraid of it. However to many in our society today this mind frame seems morbid at best.

In the September 3rd edition of MacLean’s John Fraser wrote an article entitled ‘The Way We Morn’. In it he described our societies increasingly inability to deal with death at all. He describes the trend to avoid the word death ‘at all costs’, elaborate over the top death announcements in the newspapers, ‘celebration’ services of the departed in funeral homes and halls without the body present and the deterioration of the customs of wakes. He sees all of these trends as a sign of a deep unease with death. He is most uncomfortable with the modern eulogy which he claims in most often more about the eulogist than the one being eulogised. He goes on to say that traditional church funerals are an important reminder of reality.

“If a traditional funeral is held, it is often disconcerting or considered eccentric, even anti-social. This week in Toronto, for example, Richard Bradshaw was buried with astringent solemnities at Toronto’s St James’ Cathedral that left many people shaking their heads at its harrowing simplicity. Not only were there no operatic histrionics, there was no parade of favourite memories, no touchy-feely hymns and poems, no fond and amusing anecdotes to give us some comic relief from the tragedy of a life cut short from future promise. …The centuries-old Book of Common Prayer service, which focuses on the hope of redemption, salvation and resurrection, was directed at everyone at the funeral. For many it was a moving, solemn and beautiful spiritual farewell, imbued with tragedy, acceptance and the remission of earthly grief in anticipation of another life totally beyond mortal knowledge and assurance….” For others “you would have thought a major act of sacrilege had been committed…they saw in the spare and elegiac service all the proof needed to understand why mainstream churches are in decline. The service had made no concession to the mood of the times, and the mood of the times demands that the dead be celebrated, not mourned; made present instead of departed; reborn in verbiage rather than buried in a shroud.”

We are all aware that our modern society can not understand our perception of death. Those of us who regularly do funerals are consistently grieved by the attempt of mourners to turn funeral services into Hollywood style ‘celebration’ services with numerous eulogies, hallmark poems, Broadway and country songs on a CD player, and egocentric eulogies that assume that all that is left of the deceased is memories. We grieve because we know that this is all an attempt to avoid the reality of death itself. I could on to describe my sorrow at the loss of real wakes at which the dead are properly eulogised in a proper setting and with a drink in hand! I could rail at the encroachment of the unhealthy clinical nature of the funeral industry. However this is not why I have written this piece.

What I wish we could gift to our society especially to those who grieve and mourn the death of a loved one or who fear there own death is a particular experience. This experience mixes the feelings of pain and beauty, cross and resurrection into one feeling of pathos (SUNT LACRIMAE RERUM ET MENTEM MORTALIA TANGUNT - There are Tears in Things. Virgil). At a requiem mass, when the body lying in the casket in the chancel, and the priest is at the altar a wonderful and strange thing happens. The celebrant asks the congregation to ‘Join with Angels and Archangels and all the Company of Heaven’ in the great hymn of the universe - the Sanctus. We see the body lying in our midst and feel the pain of loss, yet when we lift up our voice in song we also know that we have joined our voices with those of the dead. With an act of pure will we push out of this world of minutes and years and death, Chronos, through to God’s time - eternity, Kairos, where ‘it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be world without end’. We Christians know this bitter sweetness. This is sorrow in death and the joy of hope at the same moment. It is a beautiful experience and it makes life and death meaningful and beautiful. There is no room left in it for fear. I wish we could share it with the whole world.

The Burning of the Leaves

Now is the time for the burning of the leaves.
They go to the fire; the nostril pricks with smoke
Wandering slowly into a weeping mist.
Brittle and blotched, ragged and rotten sheaves!
A flame seizes the smouldering ruin and bites
On stubborn stalks that crackle as they resist.

The last hollyhock’s fallen tower is dust;
All the species of June are a bitter reek,
All the extravagant riches spent and mean.
All burns! The reddest rose is a ghost;
Sparks whirl up, to expire in the mist: the wild
Fingers of fire are making corruption clean.

Now is the time for stripping the spirit bare,
Time for the burning of days ended and done,
Idle solace of things that have gone before:
Rootless hope and fruitless desire are there;
Let them go to the fire, with never a look behind.
The world that was ours is a world that is ours no more.

They will come again, the leaf and the flower, to arise
From squalor of rottenness into the old splendour,
And magical scents to a wondering memory bring;
The same glory, to shine upon different eyes.
Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours.
Nothing is certain, only the certain spring.

Laurence Binyon