These fleeting charms of earth
Farewell, your springs of joy are dry
My soul now seeks another home
A brighter world on high
I’m a long time travelling here below
I’m a long time travelling away from home
I’m a long time travelling here below
To lay this body down
Grey, black, white headstones, the occasional earthy red granite. Some old obelisks, mostly whitewashed and moldy tablets, often broken with age, weather and vandalism. A very few metal-work crosses. A maritime cemetery, especially in the poor rural north, doesn’t have a lot of variety or interest. They were usually rather pathetic, thin ghosts of monuments, testimony to poverty, early death, a life lived on the fraying edge of a cold, windswept coastline.
Yet, despite the rigours of a northern life, the living were reluctant to let the dead go. In the Swedish community across the border in Maine, funerals still included grave goods. A thousand years of Christianity, five hundred of tough-minded Lutheran piety, and they still buried their dead with tokens. A miniature tractor, a favourite book, a stuffed animal, food and spirits. I was scandalized, frankly, when I first saw this. It was barely a step away from sacrifice of livestock, wild animals, or wives. There is a scene in the Thirteenth Warrior, (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120657/plotsummary) that shows this pagan practice. A concubine offers herself to be burned on the funeral boat of a Viking chieftain; the prayer she recites is very moving. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5REaxl15uI; the scene begins at 07:00.)
I am an austere Christian. I live a Plain life, almost monastic. If anything, I have a theology that one needs very little on this earth, because we are meant for another Kingdom. The possessions of this world weigh us down, keep us focused on the short term distractions of Satan’s world. I do not understand grave goods. God provides all we will need in the life of the world to come.
It is incongruent to walk into an old maritime cemetery and find, besides the pathetic plastic floral tributes dropped like litter on the graves, balloons, birdbaths, gazing balls, toys and expensive floral tributes on a grave. It seems not only incongruous, but surreal. Graves heaped with funeral wreaths immediately after the burial, in lieu of turf, are common enough. But all the dizzying colours and tributes of a birthday party are strangely frightening.
Does the family expect that the deceased will come back for the party? A disturbing image of a pink-clad girl child, shrivelled in death, sitting among the funerary gifts, has come to the dark side of my mind as I stood over such a grave.
It was in Sand Hill Cemetery. If ever there was a crossroads of life, death and pitiful disappointment, Sand Hill was it. It is an ugly disaster of a burying ground, charmless. It varied between hot and mosquito-ridden, through mournfully but not romantically mist-covered, to wind-whipped and sleet-clad. I hinted at every interment there that the parish needed to buy another property for future burials, but I might as well have shouted my thoughts to the sandstone cliffs slowly crumbling into the Bay of Chaleur.
When I spotted the pink and purple balloon hovering over the expensive pink marble monument, I stopped there, on the graveled drive, my heart beating faster. It was outrageous. It frightened me. Suddenly, the world was all wrong.
I approached slowly, cautiously, trying to angle down the path so that I could face whatever was hiding behind the headstone. I had a horrible expectation that a clown was crouched there,w aiting for me to walk past. I don’t like clowns.
I squinted at the grave from the gravel path. Nothing was crouching there…no, except for – “Oh, God,” I whispered to myself. “What is that?”
I am, most of the time, a fearless person. Snakes, spiders, bears, dark forests – I rush in where angels fear to tread. But this – it looked like a mummified baby, in christening dress and cap.
Why did it have a balloon?
I reasoned that if it was, indeed, a dead, disinterred infant, it couldn’t hurt me. If it was something worse, I was armed with prayer and a clergy collar. And car keys. And a pretty good turn of speed for a woman in her forties.
I stalked through the gravestones, heart thudding.
It was a baby doll, face sun-crazed, christening outfit bleached and ragged from the elements. There were ceramic cats, crystals, glass hearts and even rags of birthday cards on the plinth of the stone. I again whispered, “Oh, God! What is this?”
It looked like votive offerings. In this Irish parish, and in my Scots-Irish mind, this was possible. A witch? A restless spirit? I got closer.
A framed portrait, of a blonde-haired girl. Dates on the stone: she had died at the age of nine. Scripture and a teddy bear engraved next to her name, her parents’ names, and the motto, “Never gone from our hearts.”
Nine years had passed.
There was a back story. It doesn’t matter what it is. These parents, her grandparents, aunts and uncles – all continued to live under her death. There were other children. They lived in the shadow of the child who would never have a future in this world.
I found the particulars through people I trusted in the church, and I approached the grandparents. The parents had left the church, wouldn’t see me. No one saw any problem. They could not hear me through the prison walls of their grief. That grief was a changeling. They had accepted a cold, warped memory into their home in exchange for their lost child.
I prayed at the child’s grave occasionally, on yet another of my hopeless expeditions into the byzantine maze that was Sand Hill Cemetery, not for her little soul, which I was confident was with her Saviour, but for the family, oppressed by the demon they had adopted.