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- The Recreations of A Country Parson - 15/63 -


It is not a Christian thing to die manifesting indifference as to what is done with the body. That body is redeemed: not a particle of its dust but was bought with drops of Christ's precious blood. That body is appointed to a glorious condition; not a particle of the corruptible but what shall put on incorruption; of the mortal that shall not assume immortality. The Christian knows this: it is not the part of a Christian to seem unmindful of this. He may, therefore, as he departs, speak of the place where he would wish to be laid. 'Let me sleep,' he may say, 'with my father and my mother, with my wife and my children; lay me not here, in this distant land, where my dust cannot mingle with its kindred. I would he chimed to my grave by my own village bell, and have my requiem sung where I was baptized into Christ.' Marvel ye at such last words? Wonder ye that one, whose spirit is just entering the separate state, should have this care for the body which he is about to leave to the worms? Nay, he is a believer in Jesus as 'the Resurrection and the Life:' this belief prompts his dying words; and it shall have to be said of him as of Joseph, that 'by faith,' yea, 'by faith,' he 'gave commandment concerning his bones!'

If you hold this belief, my reader, you will look at a neglected churchyard with much regret; and you will highly approve of all endeavours to make the burying-place of the parish as sweet though solemn a spot as can be found within it. I have lately read a little tract, by Mr. Hill, the Rural Dean of North Frome, in the Diocese of Hereford, entitled Thoughts on Churches and Churchyards, which is well worthy of the attentive perusal of the country clergy. Its purpose is to furnish practical suggestions for the maintenance of decent propriety about the church and churchyard. I am not, at present, concerned with that part of the tract which relates to churches; but I may remark, in passing, that Mr. Hill's views upon that subject appear to me distinguished by great good sense, moderation, and taste. He does not discourage country clergymen, who have but limited means with which to set about ordering and beautifying their churches, by suggesting arrangements on too grand and expensive a scale: on the contrary, he enters with hearty sympathy into all plans for attaining a simple and inexpensive seemliness where more cannot be accomplished. And I think he hits with remarkable felicity the just mean between an undue and excessive regard to the mere externalities of worship, and a puritanical bareness and contempt for material aids, desiring, in the words of Archbishop Bramhall, that 'all be with due moderation, so as neither to render religion sordid and sluttish, nor yet light and garish, but comely and venerable.'

Equally judicious, and equally practical, are Mr. Hill's hints as to the ordering of churchyards. He laments that churchyards should ever be found where long, rank grass, briers, and nettles abound, and where neatly kept walks and graves are wanting. He goes on:--

And yet, how trifling an amount of care and attention would suffice to render neat, pretty, and pleasant to look upon, that which has oftentimes an unpleasing, desolate, and painful aspect. A few sheep occasionally (or better still, the scythe and shears now and then employed), with a trifling attention to the walks, once properly formed and gravelled, will suffice, when the fences are duly kept, to make any churchyard seemly and neat: a little more than this will make it ornamental and instructive.

It is possible that many persons might feel that flower-beds and shrubberies are not what they would wish to see in a churchyard; they might think they gave too garden-like and adorned a look to so solemn and sacred a spot; persons will not all think alike on such a matter: and yet something may be done in this direction with an effect which would please everybody. A few trees of the arbor vitae, the cypress, and the Irish yew, scattered here and there, with tirs in the hedge-rows or boundary fences, would be unobjectionable; while wooden baskets, or boxes, placed by the sides of the walks, and filled in summer with the fuchsia or scarlet geranium, would give our churchyards an exceedingly pretty, and perhaps not unsuitable appearance. Little clumps of snowdrops and primroses might also be planted here and there; for flowers may fitly spring up, bloom, and fade away, in a spot which so impressively tells us of death and resurrection: and where sheep even are never admitted, all these methods for beautifying a churchyard may be adopted. Shrubs and flowers on and near the graves, as is so universal in Wales; independently of their pretty effect, show a kindly feeling for the memory of those whose bodies rest beneath them; and how far to be preferred to those enormous and frightful masses of brick or stone which the country mason has, alas, so plentifully supplied!

In the case of a clergyman, a taste for keeping his churchyard in becoming order is just like a taste for keeping his garden and shrubbery in order: only let him begin the work, and the taste will grow. There is latent in the mind of every man, unless he be the most untidy and unobservant of the species, a love for well-mown grass and for sharply outlined gravel-walks. My brethren, credite experto. I did not know that in my soul there was a chord that vibrated responsive to trim gravel and grass, till I tried, and lo! it was there. Try for yourselves: you do not know, perhaps, the strange affinities that exist between material and immaterial nature. If any youthful clergyman shall read these lines, who knows in his conscience that his churchyard-walks are grown up with weeds, and the graves covered with nettles, upon sight hereof let him summon his man-servant, or get a labourer if he have no man-servant. Let him provide a reaping-hook and a large new spade. These implements will suffice in the meantime. Proceed to the churchyard: do not get disheartened at its neglected look, and turn away. Begin at the entrance-gate. Let all the nettles and long grass for six feet on. either side of the path be carefully cut down and gathered into heaps. Then mark out with a line the boundaries of the first ten yards of the walk. Fall to work and cut the edges with the spade; clear away the weeds and grass that have overspread the walk, also with the spade. In a little time you will feel the fascination of the sharp outline of the walk against the grass on each side. And I repeat, that to the average human being there is something inexpressibly pleasing in that sharp outline. By the time the ten yards of walk are cut, you will find that you have discovered a new pleasure and a new sensation; and from that day will date a love of tidy walks and grass;--and what more is needed to make a pretty churchyard? The fuchsias, geraniums, and so forth, are of the nature of luxuries, and they will follow in due time: but grass and gravel are the foundation of rustic neatness and tidiness.

As for the treatise on Burning the Dead, it is interesting and eloquent, though I am well convinced that its author has been putting forih labour in vain. I remember the consternation with which I read the advertisements announcing its publication. I made sure that it must be the production of one of those wrong-headed individuals who are always proposing preposterous things, without end or meaning. Why on earth should we take to burning the dead? What is to be gained by recurring to a heathen rite, repudiated by the early Christians, who, as Sir Thomas Browne tells us, 'stickt not to give their bodies to be burnt in their lives, but detested that mode after death?' And wherefore do anything so horrible, and so suggestive of cruelty and sacrilege, as to consign to devouring flames even the unconscious remains of a departed friend? But after reading the essay, I feel that the author has a great deal to say in defence of his views. I am obliged to acknowledge that in many cases important benefits would follow the adoption of urn-sepulture. The question to be considered is, what is the best way to dispose of the mortal part of man when the soul has left it? A first suggestion might be to endeavour to preserve it in the form and features of life; and, accordingly, in many countries and ages, embalming in its various modifications has been resorted to. But all attempts to prevent the human frame from obeying the Creator's law of returning to the elements have miserably failed. And surely it is better a thousand times to 'bury the dead from our sight,' than to preserve a hideous and revolting mockery of the beloved form. The Egyptian mummies every one has heard of; but the most remarkable instance of embalming in recent times is that of the wife of one Martin Van Butchell, who, by her husband's desire, was embalmed in the year 1775, by Dr. William Hunter and Mr. Carpenter, and who may be seen in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London. She was a beautiful woman, and all that skill and science could do were done to preserve her in the appearance of life; but the result is nothing short of shocking and awful. Taking it, then, as admitted, that the body must return to the dust from whence it was taken, the next question is, How? How shall dissolution take place with due respect to the dead, and with least harm to the health and the feelings of the living?

The two fashions which have been universally used are, burial and burning. It has so happened that burial has been associated with Christianity, and burning with heathenism; but I shall admit at once that the association is not essential, though it would be hard, without very weighty reason indeed, to deviate from the long-remembered 'earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.' But such weighty reason the author of this treatise declares to exist. The system of burial, he says, is productive of fearful and numberless evils and dangers to the living. In the neighbourhood of any large burying-place, the air which the living breathe, and the water which they drink, are impregnated with poisons the most destructive of health and life. Even where the damage done to air and water is inappreciable by our senses, it is a predisposing cause of headache, dysentery, sore throat, and low fever;' and it keeps all the population around in a condition in which they are the ready prey of all forms of disease. I shall not shock my readers by relating a host of horrible facts, proved by indisputable evidence, which are adduced by the surgeon to show the evils of burial: and all these evils, he maintains, may be escaped by the revival of burning. Four thousand human beings die every hour; and only by that swift and certain method can the vast mass of decaying matter which, while decaying, gives off the most subtle and searching poisons, be resolved with the elements without injury or risk to any one. So convinced has the French Government become of the evils of burial that it has patronized and encouraged one M. Bonneau, who proposes that instead of a great city having its neighbouring cemeteries, it should be provided with a building called The Sarcophagus, occupying an elevated situation, to which the bodies of rich and poor should be conveyed, and there reduced to ashes by a powerful furnace. And then M. Bonneau, Frenchman all over, suggests that the ashes of our friends might be preserved in a tasteful manner; the funeral urn, containing these ashes, 'replacing on our consoles and mantelpieces the ornaments of bronze clocks and china vases now found there.' Our author, having shown that burning would save us from the dangers of burying, concludes his treatise by a careful description of the manner in which he would carry out the burning process. And certainly his plan contains as little to shock one as may be, in carrying out a system necessarily suggestive of violence and cruelty. There is nothing like the repulsiveness of the Hindoo burning, only half carried out, or even of Mr. Trelawney's furnace for burning poor Shelley. I do not remember to have lately read anything more ghastly and revolting than the entire account of Shelley's cremation. It says much for Mr. Trelawney's nerves, that he was able to look on at it; and it was no wonder that it turned Byron sick, and that Mr. Leigh Hunt kept beyond the sight of it. I intended to have quoted the passage from Mr. Trelawney's book, but I really cannot venture to do so. But it is right to say that there were very good reasons for resorting to that melancholy mode


The Recreations of A Country Parson - 15/63

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