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- The Recreations of A Country Parson - 14/63 -

in my pretty churchyard. But, being an essentially commonplace person (as I have no doubt about nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every thousand of my readers also are), I must here confess that generally I walk about the churchyard, thinking and feeling nothing very particular. I do not believe that ordinary people, when worried by some little care, or pressed down by some little sorrow, have only to go and muse in a churchyard in order to feel how trivial and transient such cares and sorrows are, and how very little they ought to vex us. To commonplace mortals, it is the sunshine within the breast that does most to brighten; and the thing that has most power to darken is the shadow there. And the scenes and teachings of external nature have, practically, very little effect indeed. And so, when musing in the churchyard, nothing grand, heroical, philosophical, or tremendous ever suggests itself to me. I look with pleasure at the neatly cut walks and grass. I peep in at a window of the church, and think how I am to finish my sermon for next Sunday. I read over the inscriptions on the stones which mark where seven of my predecessors sleep. I look vacantly at the lichens and moss which have overgrown certain tombstones three or four centuries old. And occasionally I think of what and where I shall be, when the village mason, whistling cheerfully at his task, shall cut out my name and years on the stone which will mark my last resting-place. But all these, of course, are commonplace thoughts, just what would occur to anybody else, and really not worth repeating.

And yet, although 'death, and the house appointed for all living,' form a topic which has been treated by innumerable writers, from the author of the book of Job to Mr. Dickens; and although the subject might well be vulgarized by having been, for many a day, the stock resort of every commonplace aimer at the pathetic; still the theme is one which never can grow old. And the experience and the heart of most men convert into touching eloquence even the poorest formula of set phrases about the tremendous Fact. Nor are we able to repress a strong interest in any account of the multitude of fashions in which the mortal part of man has been disposed of, after the great change has passed upon it. In a volume entitled God's Acre, written by a lady, one Mrs. Stone, and published a year or two since, you may find a great amount of curious information upon such points: and after thinking of the various ways of burial described, I think you will return with a feeling of home and of relief to the quiet English country churchyard. I should think that the shocking and revolting description of the burning of the remains of Shelley, published by Mr. Trelawney, in his Last Days of Shelhy and Byron, will go far to destroy any probability of the introduction of cremation in this country, notwithstanding the ingenuity and the eloquence of the little treatise published about two years ago by a Member of the College of Surgeons, whose gist you will understand from its title, which is Burning the Dead; or, Urn-Sepulture Religiously, Socially, and Generally considered; with Suggestions for a Revival of the Practice, as a Sanitary Measure. The choice lies between burning and burying: and the latter being universally accepted in Britain, it remains that it be carried out in the way most decorous as regards the deceased, and most soothing to the feelings of surviving friends. Every one has seen burying-places of all conceivable kinds, and every one knows how prominent a feature they form in the English landscape. There is the dismal corner in the great city, surrounded by blackened walls, where scarce a blade of grass will grow, and where the whole thing is foul and pestilential. There is the ideal country churchyard, like that described by Gray, where the old elms and yews keep watch over the graves where successive generations of simple rustics have found their last resting-place, and where in the twilight the owls hoot from the tower of the ivy-covered church. There is the bare enclosure, surrounded by four walls, and without a tree, far up the lonely Highland hill-side; and more lonely still, the little gray stone, rising above the purple heather, where rude letters, touched up by Old Mortality's hands, tell that one, probably two or three, rest beneath, who were done to death for what they firmly believed was their Redeemer's cause, by Claverhouse or Dalyell. There is the churchyard by the bleak sea-shore, where coffins have been laid bare by the encroaching waves; and the niche in cathedral crypt, or the vault under the church's floor. I cannot conceive anything more irreverent than the American fashion of burying in unconsecrated earth, each family having its own place of interment in the corner of its own garden: unless it be the crotchet of the silly old peer, who spent the last years of his life in erecting near his castle-door, a preposterous building, the progress of which he watched day by day with the interest of a man who had worn out all other interest, occasionally lying down in the stone coffin which he had caused to be prepared, to make sure that it would fit him. I feel sorry, too, for the poor old Pope, who when he dies is laid on a shelf above a door in St. Peter's, where he remains till the next Pope dies, and then is put out of the way to make room for him; nor do I at all envy the noble who has his family vault filled with coffins covered with velvet and gold, occupied exclusively by corpses of good quality. It is better surely to be laid, as Allan Cunningham wished, where we shall 'not be built over;' where 'the wind shall blow and the daisy grow upon our grave.' Let it be among our kindred, indeed, in accordance with the natural desire; but not on dignified shelves, not in aristocratic vaults, but lowly and humbly, where the Christian dead sleep for the Resurrection. Most people will sympathize so far with Beattie, though his lines show that he was a Scotchman, and lived where there are not many trees:--

Mine be the breezy hill that skirts the down, Where a green grassy turf is all I crave, With here and there a violet bestrown, Fast by a brook, or fountain's murmuring wave; And many an evening sun shine sweetly on my grave!

But it depends entirely upon individual associations and fancies where one would wish to rest after life's fitful fever: and I have hardly ever been more deeply impressed than by certain lines which I cut out of an old newspaper when I was a boy, and which set out a choice far different from that of The Minstrel. They are written by Mr. Westwood, a true poet, though not known as he deserves to be. Here they are:--

Not there, not there! Not in that nook, that ye deem so fair;-- Little reck I of the blue bright sky, And the stream that floweth so murmuringly, And the bending boughs, and the breezy air-- Not there, good friends, not there!

In the city churchyard, where the grass Groweth rank and black, and where never a ray Of that self-same sun doth find its way Through the heaped-up houses' serried mass-- Where the only sounds are the voice of the throng, And the clatter of wheels as they rush along-- Or the plash of the rain, or the wind's hoarse cry, Or the busy tramp of the passer-by, Or the toll of the bell on the heavy air-- Good friends, let it be there!

I am old, my friends--I am very old-- Fourscore and five--and bitter cold Were that air on the hill-side far away; Eighty full years, content, I trow, Have I lived in the home where ye see me now, And trod those dark streets day by day, Till my soul doth love them; I love them all, Each battered pavement, and blackened wall, Each court and corner. Good sooth! to me They are all comely and fair to see-- They have old faces--each one doth tell A tale of its own, that doth like me well-- Sad or merry, as it may be, From the quaint old book of my history. And, friends, when this weary pain is past, Fain would I lay me to rest at last In their very midst;--full sure am I, How dark soever be earth and sky, I shall sleep softly--I shall know That the things I loved so here below Are about me still--so never care That my last home looketh all bleak and bare-- Good friends, let it be there!

Some persons appear to think that it argues strength of mind and freedom from unworthy prejudice, to profess great indifference as to what becomes of their mortal part after they die. I have met with men who talked in a vapouring manner about leaving their bodies to be dissected; and who evidently enjoyed the sensation which such sentiments produced among simple folk. Whenever I hear any man talk in this way, my politeness, of course, prevents my telling him that he is an uncommonly silly person; but it does not prevent my thinking him one. It is a mistake to imagine that the soul is the entire man. Human nature, alike here and hereafter, consists of soul and body in union; and the body is therefore justly entitled to its own degree of thought and care. But the point, indeed, is not one to be argued; it is, as it appears to me, a matter of intuitive judgment and instinctive feeling; and I apprehend that this feeling and judgment have never appeared more strongly than in the noblest of our race. I hold by Burke, who wrote, 'I should like that my dust should mingle with kindred dust; the good old expression, "family burying-ground," has something pleasing in it, at least to me.' Mrs. Stone quotes Lady Murray's account of the death of her mother, the celebrated Grissell Baillie, which shows that that strong-minded and noble-hearted woman felt the natural desire:--

The next day she called me: gave directions about some few things: said she wished to be carried home to lie by my father, but that perhaps it would be too much trouble and inconvenience to us at that season, therefore left me to do as I pleased; but that, in a black purse in her cabinet, I would find money sufficient to do it, which she had kept by her for that use, that whenever it happened, it might not straiten us. She added, 'I have now no more to say or do:' tenderly embraced me, and laid down her head upon the pillow, and spoke little after that.

An instance, at once touching and awful, of care for the body after the soul has gone, is furnished by certain well-known lines written by a man not commonly regarded as weak-minded or prejudiced; and engraved by his direction on the stone that marks his grave. If I am wrong, I am content to go wrong with Shakspeare:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear To dig the dust enclosed here: Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones.

The most eloquent exposition I know of the religious aspect of the question, is contained in the concluding sentences of Mr. Melvill's noble sermon on the 'Dying Faith of Joseph.' I believe my readers will thank me for quoting it:--

The Recreations of A Country Parson - 14/63

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