Concerning Churchyards

By A.K.H. Boyd.

Many persons do not like to go near a churchyard: some do not like even to hear a churchyard mentioned. Many others feel an especial interest in that quiet place—an interest which is quite unconnected with any personal associations with it. A great deal depends upon habit; and a great deals turns, too, on whether the churchyard which we know best is a locked-up, deserted, neglected place, all grown over with nettles; or a spot not too much retired, open to all passers-by, with trimly-mown grass and neat graveled walks.  I do not sympathize with the taste which converts a burying-place into a flower-garden or a fashionable lounge for thoughtless people: let it be the true ‘country churchyard,’ only with some appearance of being remembered and cared for. For myself, though a very commonplace person, and not at all sentimentally inclined, I have a great liking for a churchyard. Hardly a day passes on which I do not go and walk up and down for a little in that which surrounds my church. Probably some people may regard me as extremely devoid of occupation, when I confess that daily, after breakfast, and before sitting down to my work (which is pretty hard, though they may not think so), I walk slowly down to the churchyard, which is a couple of hundred yards off, and there pace about for a few minutes, looking at the old graves and the mossy stones. Nor is this only in summer-time, when the sward is white with daisies, when the ancient oaks around the gray wall are leafy and green, when the passing river flashes bright through their openings and runs chiming over the warm stones, and when the beautiful hills that surround the quiet spot at a little distance are flecked with summer light and shade; but in winter too, when the bare branches look sharp against the frosty sky, and the graves look like wavelets on a sea of snow.

Now, if I were anxious to pass myself off upon my readers as a great and thoughtful man, I might here give an account of the profound thoughts which I think in my daily musings 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, heroic, 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 Shelley 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 bestrewn, 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 Shakespeare:

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:--

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 endeavors 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 graveled, 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 firs 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 laborer 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 forth labor 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 defense 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 endeavor 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 neighborhood 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 neighboring 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 Hindu 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 of disposing of the poet’s remains, and that Mr. Trelawney did all he could to accomplish the burning with efficiency and decency: though the whole story makes one feel the great physical difficulties that stand in the way of carrying out cremation successfully. The advocate of urn-sepulture, however, is quite aware of this, and he proposes to use an apparatus by which they would be entirely overcome. It is only fair to let him speak for himself; and I think the following passage will be read with interest:--

On a gentle eminence, surrounded by pleasant grounds, stands a convenient, well-ventilated chapel, with a high spire or steeple.  At the entrance, where some of the mourners might prefer to take leave of the body, are chambers for their accommodation. Within the edifice are seats for those who follow the remains to the last: there is also an organ, and a gallery for choristers. In the centre of the chapel, embellished with appropriate emblems and devices, is erected a shrine of marble, somewhat like those which cover the ashes of the great and mighty in our old cathedrals, the openings being filled with prepared plate glass. Within this—a sufficient space intervening—is an inner shrine covered with bright non-radiating metal, and within this again is a covered sarcophagus of tempered fire-clay, with one or more longitudinal slits near the top, extending its whole length. As soon as the body is deposited therein, sheets of flame at an immensely high temperature rush through the long apertures from end to end, and acting as a combination of a modified oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, with the reverberatory furnace, utterly and completely consume and decompose the body, in an incredibly short space of time. Even the large quantity of water it contains is decomposed by the extreme heat, and its elements, instead of retarding, aid combustion, as is the case in fierce conflagrations.  The gaseous products of combustion are conveyed away by flues; and means being adopted to consume anything like smoke, all that is observed from the outside is occasionally a quivering transparent ether floating away from the high steeple to mingle with the atmosphere.

At either end of the sarcophagus is a closely-fitting fire-proof door, that farthest from the chapel entrance communicating with a chamber which projects into the chapel and adjoins the end of the shrine. Here are the attendants, who, unseen, conduct the operation.  The door at the other end of the sarcophagus, with a corresponding opening in the inner and outer shrine, is exactly opposite a slab of marble on which the coffin is deposited when brought into the chapel. The funeral service then commences according; to any form decided on. At an appointed signal the end of the coffin, which is placed just within the opening in the shrine, is removed, and the body is drawn rapidly but gently and without exposure into the sarcophagus: the sides of the coffin, constructed for the purpose, collapse; and the wooden box is removed to be burned elsewhere.

Meantime the body is committed to the flames to be consumed, and the words ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ may be appropriately used.  The organ peals forth a solemn strain, and a hymn or requiem for the dead is sung. In a few minutes, or even seconds, and without any perceptible noise or commotion, all is over, and nothing but a few pounds or ounces of light ash remains. This is carefully collected by the attendants of the adjoining chamber: a door communicating with the chapel is thrown open; and the relic, enclosed in a vase of glass or other material, is brought in and placed before the mourners, to be finally enshrined in the funeral urn of marble, alabaster, stone, or metal.

Speaking for myself, I must say that I think it would cause a strange feeling in most people to part at the chapel-door with the corpse of one who had been very dear, and, after a few minutes of horrible suspense, during which they should know that it was burning in a fierce furnace, to see the vessel of white ashes brought back, and be told that there was all that was mortal of the departed friend.  No doubt it may be weakness and prejudice, but I think that few could divest themselves of the feeling of sacrilegious violence.  Better far to lay the brother or sister, tenderly as though still they felt, in the last resting-place, so soft and trim. It soothes us, if it does no good to them, and the sad change which we know is soon to follow is wrought only by the gentle hand of Nature.  And only think of a man pointing to half-a-dozen vases on his mantelpiece, and as many more on his cheffonier, and saying, ‘There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest!’

No, no; the thing will never do!

One of the latest examples of burning, in the case of a Christian, is that of Henry Laurens, the first President of the American Congress. In his will he solemnly enjoined upon his children that they should cause his body to be given to the flames. The Emperor Napoleon, when at St. Helena, expressed a similar desire; and said, truly enough, that as for the Resurrection, that would be miraculous at all events, and it would be just as easy for the Almighty to accomplish that great end in the case of burning as in that of burial. And, indeed, the doctrine of the Resurrection is one that it is not wise to scrutinize too minutely—I mean as regards its rationale. It is best to simply hold by the great truth, that ‘this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality.’ I presume that it has been shown beyond doubt that the material particles which make up our bodies are in a state of constant flux, the entire physical nature being changed every seven years, so that if all the particles which once entered into the structure of a man of fourscore were reassembled, they would suffice to make seven or eight bodies. And the manner in which it is certain that the mortal part of man is dispersed and assimilated to all the elements furnishes a very striking thought. Bryant has said, truly and beautifully,

All that tread
The globe, are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.

And James Montgomery, in a poem of his which is little known, and which is amplified and spoiled in the latest editions of his works, has suggested to us whither the mortal vestiges of these untold millions have gone. It is entitled Lines to a Molehill in a Churchyard.

Tell me, thou dust beneath my feet,--
Thou dust that once hadst breath,--
Tell me, how many mortals meet
In this small hill of death.

The mole, that scoops with curious toil
Her subterranean bed,
Thinks not she plows a human soil,
And mines among the dead.

Yet, whereso’er she turns the ground,
My kindred earth I see:
Once every atom of this mound
Lived, breathed, and felt, like me.

Through all this hillock’s crumbling mould
Once the warm lifeblood ran:
Here thine original behold,
And here thy ruins, man!

By wafting winds and flooding rains,
From ocean, earth, and sky,
Collected here, the frail remains
Of slumbering millions lie.

The towers and temples crushed by time,
Stupendous wrecks, appear
To me less mournfully sublime
Than this poor molehill here.

Methinks this dust yet heaves with breath—
Ten thousand pulses beat;--
Tell me, in this small hill of death,
How many mortals meet!

One idea, you see, beaten out rather thin, and expressed in a great many words, as was the good man’s wont. And in these days of the misty and spasmodic school, I owe my readers an apology for presenting them with poetry which they will have no difficulty in understanding.

Amid a great number of particulars as to the burial customs of various nations, we find mention made of an odd way in which the natives of Tibet dignify their great people. They do not desecrate such by giving them to the earth, but retain a number of sacred dogs to devour them. Not less strange was the fancy of that Englishwoman, a century or two back, who had her husband burnt to ashes, and these ashes reduced to powder, of which she mixed some with all the water she drank, thinking, poor heart-broken creature, that, thus she was burying the dear form within her own.

In rare cases I have known of the parson or the churchwarden turning his cow to pasture in the churchyard, to the sad desecration of the place. It appears, however, that worse than this has been done, if we may judge from the following passage quoted by Mrs. Stone:--

1540. Proceedings in the Court of Archdeaconry of Colchester, Colne Wake. Notatur per iconimos dicte ecclesie yt the parson mysusithe the churche-yard, for hogis do wrote up graves, and besse lie in the porche, and ther the pavements he broke up and soyle the porche; and ther is so mych catell yt usithe the church-yarde, yt is more liker a pasture than a halowed place.

It is usual, it appears, in the southern parts of France, to erect in the churchyard a lofty pillar, bearing a large lamp, which throws its light upon the cemetery during the night. The custom began in the twelfth or thirteenth century. Sometimes the lanterne des marts was a highly ornamented chapel, built in a circular form, like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem, in which the dead lay exposed to view in the days which preceded their interment: sometimes it was merely a hollow column, ascended by a winding stair inside, or by projections left for the purpose within. It must have been a striking sight when the traveler, through the dark night, saw far away the lonely flame that marked the spot where so many of his fellow-men had completed their journey.

One of the oddest things ever introduced into Materia Medica was the celebrated Mummy Powder. Egyptian mummies, being broken up and ground into dust, were held of great value as medicine both for external and internal application. Boyle and Bacon unite in commending its virtues: the latter, indeed, venturing to suggest that ‘the mixture of balms that are glutinous’ was the foundation of its power, though common belief held that the virtue was ‘more in the Egyptian than in the spice.’ Even in the seventeenth century mummy was an important article of commerce, and was sold at a great price. One Eastern traveler brought to the Turkey Company six hundred weight of mummy broken into pieces. Adulteration came into play in a manner which would have gratified the Lancet commission: the Jews collecting the bodies of executed criminals, filling them with common asphaltum, which cost little, and then drying them in the sun, when they became undistinguishable from the genuine article.  And the maladies which mummy was held to cure are set forth in a list which we commend to the notice of Professor Holloway. It was ‘to be taken in decoctions of marjoram, thyme, elder-flower, barley, roses, lentils, jujubes, cumin-seed, caraway, saffron, cassia, parsley, with oxymel, wine, milk, butter, castor, and mulberries.’ Sir Thomas Browne, who was a good deal before his age, did not approve of the use of mummy. He says:

Were the efficacy thereof more clearly made out, we scarce conceive the use thereof allowable in physic: exceeding the barbarities of Cambyses, and turning old heroes into unworthy potions. Shall Egypt lend out her ancients unto chirurgeons and apothecaries, and Cheops and Psammeticus be weighed unto us for drugs? Shall we eat of Chamnes and Amasis in electuaries and pills, and be cured by cannibal mixtures? Surely such diet is miserable vampirism; and exceeds in horror the black banquet of Domitian, not to be paralleled except in those Arabian feasts wherein ghouls feed horribly.

I need hardly add that the world has come round to the great physician’s way of thinking, and that mummy is not included in the pharmacopoeia of modern days.

The monumental inscriptions of this country, as a general rule, furnish lamentable proof of the national bad taste. Somehow our peculiar genius seems not to lie in that direction; and very eminent men, who did most other things well, have signally failed when they tried to produce an epitaph. What with stilted extravagance and bombast on the one side, and profane and irreverent jesting on the other, our epitaphs, for the most part, would be better away. It was well said by Addison of the inscriptions in Westminster Abbey,--‘Some epitaphs are so extravagant that the dead person would blush; and others so excessively modest that they deliver the character of the person departed in Greek and Hebrew, and by that means are not understood once in a twelve-month.’ And Fuller has hit the characteristics of a fitting epitaph when he said that ‘the shortest, plainest, and truest epitaphs are the best.’ In most cases the safe plan is to give no more than the name and age, and some brief text of Scripture.

Every one knows that epitaphs generally are expressed in such complimentary terms as quite explain the question of the child, who wonderingly inquired where they buried the bad people. Mrs. Stone, however, quotes a remarkably out-spoken one, from a monument in Horselydown Church, in Cumberland. It runs as follows:--

Here lie the bodies
Of Thomas Bond and Mary his wife.

She was temperate, chaste, and charitable;
She was proud, peevish, and passionate.

She was an affectionate wife and a tender mother;
Her husband and child, whom she loved,
Seldom saw her countenance without a disgusting frown;
While she received visitors whom she despised with an endearing smile.

Her behavior was discreet towards strangers;
Imprudent in her family.

Abroad her conduct was influenced by good breeding;
At home by ill temper.

And so the epitaph runs on to considerable length, acknowledging the good qualities of the poor woman, but killing each by setting against it some peculiarly unamiable trait. I confess that my feeling is quite turned in her favor by the unmanly assault which her brother (the author of the inscription) has thus made upon the poor dead woman. If you cannot honestly say good of a human being on his grave-stone, then say nothing at all. There are some cases in which an exception may justly be made; and such a one, I think, was that of the infamous Francis Chartres, who died in 1731. He was buried in Scotland, and at his funeral the populace raised a riot, almost tore his body from the coffin, and threw dead dogs into the grave along with it. Dr. Arbuthnot wrote his epitaph, and here it is:--

Here continueth to rot
The body of Francis Chartres:

Who, with an inflexible constancy,
Inimitable uniformity of life,
In spite of age and infirmities,
In the practice of every human vice,
Excepting prodigality and hypocrisy:

His insatiable avarice exempted him
from the first,
His matchless impudence from the

Nor was he more singular
In the undeviating pravity of his
Than successful
In accumulating wealth:

For without trade or profession,
Without trust of public money,
And without bribeworthy service,
He acquired, or more properly created,
A Ministerial Estate:

He was the only person of his time
Who could cheat without the mask of honesty,
Retain his primeval meanness
When possessed of ten thousand a year:

And having daily deserved the gibbet for
what he did,
Was at last condemned for what he
could not do.

Oh! indignant reader!
Think not his life useless to mankind!

Providence connived at his execrable designs,
To give to after ages
A conspicuous proof and example
Of how small estimation is exorbitant
In the sight of God,
By his bestowing it on the most
unworthy of all

If one does intend to make a verbal assault upon any man, it is well to do so in words which will sting and cut; and assuredly Arbuthnot has succeeded in his laudable intention. The character is justly drawn; and with the change of a very few words, it might correctly be inscribed on the monument of at least one Scotch and one English peer, who have died within the last half-century.

There are one or two extreme cases in which it is in good taste, and the effect not without sublimity, to leave a monument with no inscription at all. Of course this can only be when the monument is that of a very great and illustrious man. The pillar erected by Bernadotte at Frederickshall, in memory of Charles the Twelfth, bears not a word; and I believe most people who visit the spot feel that Bernadotte judged well. The rude mass of masonry, standing in the solitary waste, that marks where Howard the philanthropist sleeps, is likewise nameless. And when John Kyrle died in 1724, he was buried in the chancel of the church of Ross in Herefordshire, ‘without so much as an inscription.’ But the Man of Ross had his best monument in the lifted head and beaming eye of those he left behind him at the mention of his name. He never knew, of course, that the bitter little satirist of Twickenham would melt into unwonted tenderness in telling of all he did, and apologize nobly for his nameless grave:--

And what! no monument, inscription, stone?
His race, his form, his name almost, unknown? 
Who builds a church to God, and not to fame,
Will never mark the marble with his name:

Go, search it there, where to be born and die,
Of rich and poor make all the history:
Enough, that virtue filled the space between,
Proved, by the ends of being, to have been!

The two fine epitaphs written by Ben Jonson are well known. One is on the Countess of Pembroke:--

Underneath this marble hearse,
Lies the subject of all verse:
Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s’mother;
Death! ere thou hast slain another,
Learned and fair, and good as she,
Time shall throw a dart at thee.

And the other is the epitaph of a certain unknown Elizabeth:--

Wouldst thou hear what man can say
In a little?--reader, stay.

Underneath this stone doth lie
As much beauty as could die;
Which in life did harbor give,
To more virtue than doth live.

If at all she had a fault,
Leave it buried in this vault:
One name was Elizabeth,
The other let it sleep with death:

Fitter, where it died, to tell,
Than that it lived at all. Farewell!

Most people have heard of the brief epitaph inscribed on a tombstone in the floor of Hereford Cathedral, which inspired one of the sonnets of Wordsworth. There is no name, no date, but the single word MISERRIMUS. The lines, written by herself, which are inscribed on the gravestone of Mrs. Hemans, in St. Anne’s Church at Dublin, are very beautiful, but too well known to need quotation. And Longfellow, in his charming little poem of Nuremburg, has preserved the characteristic word in the epitaph of Albert Durer:--

Emigravit is the inscription on the tombstone where he lies;
Dead he is not,--but departed,--for the artist never dies.

Perhaps some readers may be interested by the following epitaph, written by no less a man than Sir Walter Scott, and inscribed on the stone which covers the grave of a humble heroine whose name his genius has made known over the world. The grave is in the churchyard of Kirkpatrick-Irongray, a few miles from Dumfries:--

This stone was erected
By the Author of Waverley
To the memory of
Helen Walker
Who died in the year of God 1791.

This humble individual
practiced in real life
the virtues
with which fiction has invested
the imaginary character
Jeanie Deans.

Refusing the slightest departure
from veracity
even to save the life of a sister,
she nevertheless showed her
kindness and fortitude
by rescuing her from the severity of the law;

at the expense of personal exertions
which the time rendered as difficult
as the motive was laudable.
Respect the grave of poverty
when combined with love of truth
and dear affection.

Although, of course, it is treasonable to say so, I confess I think this inscription somewhat cumbrous and awkward. The antithesis is not a good one, between the difficulty of Jeanie’s ‘personal exertions’ and the laudableness of the motive which led to them.  And there is something not metaphysically correct in the combination described in the closing sentence—the combination of poverty, an outward condition, with truthfulness and affection, two inward characteristics. The only parallel phrase which I remember in literature is one which was used by Mr. Stiggins when he was explaining to Sam Weller what was meant by a moral pocket-handkerchief.  ‘It’s them,’ were Mr. Stiggins’s words, ‘as combines useful instruction with wood-cuts.’ Poverty might co-exist with, or be associated with, any mental qualities you please, but assuredly it cannot correctly be said to enter into combination with any.

As for odd and ridiculous epitaphs, their number is great, and every one has the chief of them at his fingers’ ends. I shall be content to give two or three, which I am quite sure hardly any of my readers ever heard of before. The following, which may be read on a tombstone in a country churchyard in Ayrshire, appears to me to be unequalled for irreverence. And let critics observe the skilful introduction of the dialogue form, giving the inscription a dramatic effect:--

Wha is it that’s lying here?--
Robin Wood, ye needna speer.
Eh Robin, is this you?
Ou aye, but I’m deid noo!

The following epitaph was composed by a village poet and wit, not unknown to me in my youth, for a rival poet, one Syme, who had published a volume of verses On the Times (not the newspaper).

Beneath this thistle,
Skin, bone, and gristle,
In Sexton Goudie’s keepin’ lies,

Of poet Syme,
Who fell to rhyme,
(O bards beware!) a sacrifice.

Ask not at all,
Where flew his saul,
When of the body death bereft her:

She, like his rhymes
Upon the Times,
Was never worth the speerin’ after!

Speerin’, I should mention, for the benefit of those ignorant of Lowland Scotch, means asking or inquiring.

It is recorded in history that a certain Mr. Anderson, who filled the dignified office of Provost of Dundee, died, as even provosts must. It was resolved that a monument should be erected in his memory, and that the inscription upon it should be the joint composition of four of his surviving colleagues in the magistracy.  They met to prepare the epitaph; and after much consideration it was resolved that the epitaph should be a rhymed stanza of four lines, of which lines each magistrate should contribute one. The senior accordingly began, and having deeply ruminated he produced the following:--

Here lies Anderson, Provost of Dundee.

This formed a neat and striking introduction, going (so to speak) to the heart of things at once, but leaving room for subsequent amplification. The second magistrate perceived this, and felt that the idea was such a good one that it ought to be followed up. He therefore produced the line,

Here lies Him, here lies He:

thus repeating in different modifications the same grand thought, after the style which has been adopted by Burke, Chalmers, Melvill, and other great orators. The third magistrate, whose turn had now arrived, felt that the foundation had thus been substantially laid down, and that the time had come to erect upon it a superstructure of reflection, inference, or exclamation. With the simplicity of genius he wrote as follows, availing himself of a poet’s license to slightly alter the ordinary forms of language:--

Hallelujah, Hallelujee!

The epitaph being thus, as it were, rounded and complete, the fourth contributor to it found himself in a difficulty; wherefore add anything to that which needed and in truth admitted nothing more?  Still the stanza must he completed. What should he do?  He would fall back on the earliest recollections of his youth—he would recur to the very fount and origin of all human knowledge.  Seizing his pen, he wrote thus:-- 

A. B. C. D. E. F. G.!

Whoever shall piece together these valuable lines, thus fragmentarily presented, will enter into the feelings of the Town Council, which bestowed a vote of thanks upon their authors, and caused the stanza to be engraven on the worthy provost’s monument. I have not myself read it, but am assured it is in existence.

There was something of poor Thomas Hood’s morbid taste for the ghastly, and the physically repulsive, in his fancy of spending some time during his last illness in drawing a picture of himself dead in his shroud. In his memoirs, published by his children, you may see the picture, grimly truthful: and bearing the legend, He sang the Song of the Shirt. You may discover in what he drew, as well as in what he wrote, many indications of the humorist's perverted taste: and no doubt the knowledge that mortal disease was for years doing its work within, led his thoughts oftentimes to what was awaiting himself. He could not walk in an avenue of elm-trees, without fancying that one of them might furnish his coffin. When in his ear, as in Longfellow’s, ‘the green trees whispered low and mild,’ their sound did not carry him back to boyhood, but onward to his grave. He listened, and there rose within

A secret, vague, prophetic fear,
As though by certain mark,
I knew the fore-ordained tree,
Within whose rugged bark,
This warm and living form shall find
Its narrow house and dark.

Not but that such thoughts are well in their due time and place. It is very fit that we should all sometimes try to realize distinctly what is meant when each of us repeats words four thousand years old, and says, ‘I know that Thou wilt bring me to death, and to the house appointed for all living.’ Even with all such remembrances brought home to him by means to which we are not likely to resort, the good priest and martyr Robert Southwell tells us how hard he found it, while in buoyant life, to rightly consider his end. But in perfect cheerfulness and healthfulness of spirit, the human being who knows (so far as man can know) where he is to rest at last, may oftentimes visit that peaceful spot. It will do him good: it can do him no harm. The hard-wrought man may fitly look upon the soft green turf, some day to be opened for him; and think to himself, Not yet, I have more to do yet; but in a little while.  Somewhere there is a place appointed for each of us, a place that is waiting for each of us, and that will not be complete till we are there. Well, we rest in the humble trust, that ‘through the grave and gate of death, we shall pass to our joyful resurrection.’ And we turn away now from the churchyard, recalling Bryant’s lines as to its extent:

Yet not to thy eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone; nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world, with kings,

The powerful of the earth, the wise and good,
Fair forms and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulcher. The hills,
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun; the vales,

Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods; rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,

Old ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,--
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the Great Tomb of Man!



This is taken from Recreations of a Country Parson.




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