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Dust to Dust, Sand Hill

On the north shore of New Brunswick, on the disintegrating cliffs of sandstone with their deep granite bones, my parish had two cemeteries. The Clifton Cemetery, across from Christ Church, is in danger of  falling into the sea in a few decades. The relentless sea will take the bones and headstones of old sailors and fishermen who escaped a watery grave. The other cemetery is at Salmon Beach, a quarter of a larger burial ground known as Sand Hill. As is often the case with rural maritime cemeteries, the land was useless for farming, so it got used for some other kind of planting.

A hundred years of burials had pretty much filled our zone of the cemetery. Family plots were overlapping. Negotiations went on for one family to buy an empty nook or two from another. But sometimes those spaces weren’t empty as shown on the cemetery map.

The brass sounding rod was often employed. Driven hard into the ground, the ten foot rod would find anything solid. Poor families didn’t always buy headstones. In a generation past, the hand dug graves didn’t always fall in a neat line. Sounding revealed any misplaced vaults or caskets. In years past, plywood vaults weren’t used. A hole was dug, the coffin lowered, and the grave back-filled.  This made it easy to mistakenly re-open an old, unmarked grave. Years of topping up the depressions, and the natural shifting and settling of a piece of land that was mostly a roughly grassed dune, made the topography uncertain.

It was an ugly cemetery. Shaped like a dead whale, it had badly fashioned wrought iron gates, gravel  paths and an assortment of cheap thin headstones. It was bordered by chokecherry and scrub pine. It sloped down to a gully and a slab of fill built up to provide more plots. It had all the peacefulness of a vacant parking lot.

My archdeacon asked me to assist at a funeral one Saturday. I couldn’t, with a commitment for home communions that day, but I said I would come by the cemetery for the committal. He was concerned about the bereft, adult daughter, who had cared for her elderly father for a decade, and his twin brother, as well. The brother had died two years before, and she had been distraught then. Now that the frail old father was gone, he expected that he would need some help with an hysterical daughter.

I arrived at the cemetery just as he pronounced, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” The daughter, with her son’s arm lightly around her shoulders, threw herself to her knees, wailing, as the casket was lowered. I lunged through the little crowd and caught her by the arms. “No!” she shrieked. “Don’t take Daddy away!” The son and I wrestled her back from the edge of the grave. She struggled against us.

“Mum!” he shouted. “You are not jumping in that grave.”

“Daddy!” she cried and keened. I had her in a lock grip around the waist as her son stood in front of her, his hands on her shoulders.

The archdeacon hurriedly finished the office, and relatives lifted the weeping daughter to a car, where she was locked in with hefty female cousins on either side.

The archdeacon was as pale as his surplice. I asked, “Do you need a nerve tightener?”

He shook his head. “I don’t drink.” He stalked off with a frown and left me to supervise the back-fill of the grave.

When we met again, I tried to explain. “These are people who aren’t far out of the old country.”

“Which old country?”

I gave him a deep, deep look, the sort of look one gives a rather stubborn and obtuse child who really does know better.

“Look at your parish names. What do you think is their ethnicity?”

He took out his parish list. (And I thought, You don’t know their names?)

“Reilly, Murray, Scott, Elways, O’Mallory, O’Thomas…”

“Irish. You haven’t been here long, have you?”

“I arrive just two months before you.”

“You hadn’t noticed a lot of emotion among them at funerals?”

“This is only the second funeral I’ve had here.”

Right. I had been doing all the funerals.

“Do you know what keening is?”

He gave me a blank-faced stare.

“It is a form of mourning. The women wail and cry at the graveside. They used to do it for the full three days of the wake. You will find they still do it in some families. They get all worked up. It lets the dead soul know the family cared.”

“That is absolutely pagan! Why do they do this?”

“It imitates the cry of the banshee.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

I have a glass face. Whatever I am thinking shows. I must have looked incredulously stunned.

“How can you not know what the banshee is?”

“Is it an animal?”

I’m sure I tilted my head like a puzzled dog.

“Ban shee. Bean sidhe,” and I spelled it for him, “is the familiar spirit of an old Irish or Scottish family, that wails over the dying. It is an omen of a death. It means…” (and I whispered) “.. Fairy Woman. One of the good people.”

He slammed his hand on his desk. I jumped.

“I…I have no tolerance for this nonsense! Surely they don’t believe in such…such things!”

I sat very still.

“Surely you don’t believe in this!”

I couldn’t tell him. I had reasons not to trust him with what I believed and didn’t believe. (Although that is a tale for another rainy day.)

Yes, I believe in the banshee. I’ve heard her. So have other people I know. It is an eerie, terrifying cry, that rises in pitch, wavers, drops, and starts again. I have reason to believe. It isn’t belief; it is knowledge.

But I really didn’t want to make another visit to the bishop’s office.

Oh, there are more stories out of that cemetery of thin ghosts…

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About Julie

Bishop of the church and religious order ICCO in The YOKE, based in Iowa City. Former Anglican parish priest, shepherd for ten years, artist, and writer.

One response to “Dust to Dust, Sand Hill

  1. Jane Smith ⋅

    I do hope, Magdalena, that you are going to put all these posts together and go and find a publisher.

    Your writing is excellent.

    (I am an English editor by profession.)

    I think I am right in saying that the Scots also have the Banshee. If you can, get hold of “British folktales and legends” by Katherine Briggs.

    Jane Smith (Pretoria, South Africa)

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