I’ve had a graveside week of it this week.
That’s not quite as morbid and unpleasant as it sounds. The visits I made to gravesides in my home town were full of interest and contained at least one fascinating surprise. The visit to the resting place of the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith along with other members of the Hereford Baha’i community was a spiritually rewarding one.
We went up to Stockport to see my cousin’s husband. My cousin died recently and we wanted to keep in touch with him during this difficult period. Obviously we also visited her grave, which awaits the headstone once it has settled. When we told him of our plan he mentioned that my grandparents’ grave was close by in the same cemetery. I was astonished because I had never realised this, even though I had had many conversations about their parents with my aunt and my mother before they died. It was amazing to me that they had never mentioned where my grandparents were buried, nor could I remember their taking me with them to visit the grave.
Not surprisingly then my wife and I could hardly wait to search for my grandparents’ grave. We found it without too much difficulty apart from soggy turf and uneven ground. Then I had another shock. My uncle Frank, whose funeral I attended in 1960, was also buried in the same grave. How could I have stood there when his coffin was lowered and not realised? The only explanation that occurs to me is that the stone was not visible at that time he was buried and, as I had never been particularly close to my uncle, I had not visited his grave after the stone had been replaced. It also makes sense of why neither my aunt nor my mother ever thought to tell me where my grandparents’ were buried.
Alice and Richard
Because there was very little information on the stone, we called in at the cemetery office on our way out to see if we could learn anymore. The lady there was very helpful. We saw the register of Catholic burials for that period and to my surprise I learned that my uncle and his parents had lived at the same address from at least 1937, when my grandmother died, and he had stayed there after their deaths. I had visited him a couple of times in that same tiny terraced two-up-two-down red-brick house, with its steep narrow stairs and dark interiors, but never realised that this was where they also had lived for so long. I thought they had lived and died in Heaton Norris, not off Shaw Heath as it finally turned out.
This news gave me a link to them that I never knew I had: I knew the house they had lived in till their deaths. They had both died before I was born. Memories of what I had been told about them came flooding back.
Alice, my grandmother, from what I can make out from what is left in my memory from all my mother’s accounts, was a very brave and resourceful woman. Richard, her husband and my grandfather, had been a signalman on the railways, a skilled and well-paid job by the standards of the times. This would be at the turn of the nineteenth century into the first decade of the twentieth. In the census of 1901 he described himself as still a “railway signalman.” He was 37 years old: his wife Alice was 36. My mother wasn’t yet born.
They had both converted to Roman Catholicism as a result of the influence of Cardinal Newman in the wake of the Oxford movement. While he was able to work the family would’ve been reasonably comfortable. Sadly, when my Uncle Harold, the eldest child of the family, was fourteen years old and not very long after my mother was born, Richard had an accident which sprained his ankle. Nobody thought that was much of a problem at first and he carried on working as best he could. It didn’t get any better. His doctor said it was nothing serious but he ought to rest it for a while, which he did. Even when he rested it still got worse. The pain got so bad that he could not bear the leg to be touched. Eventually Richard went to another doctor who explained that the situation was serious. The sprain had turned gangrenous and an amputation was necessary. They cut off his leg to save his life. I am not sure whether he was able to return to work after that. I have the impression he did, but to lighter and less well-paid duties. The family coped with the downturn in their fortunes reasonably well.
The final and most disastrous blow was when he fell on the ice of a children’s slide one winter and damaged his hip. After that he could not walk at all easily or well and therefore could not work. There was no longer a wage coming in. Harold had to leave school and give up his piano classes, at which he was doing very well, and go to work to earn some money to help the family who were now struggling very hard. Their savings were too little to manage on. They had had to pay so much to the doctors (there was no Health Service or Social Security in those days). His sister, my Aunt Ann, also had to go to work. This would have happened by about 1904 I reckon. My mother would have been about three.
It was apparently my grandmother’s resourcefulness that kept them going. She fixed and mended and did odd jobs for extra cash. She was creative and tireless. The strain did eventually take its toll on her also. She developed a heart condition which caused her death after a long illness in the late nineteen-thirties. Still, she survived into her early seventies.
My grandfather, Richard, who survived her by four years, had his own way of coping with the drastic change in his circumstances. He had a passion for music and had been instrumental (sorry about the pun!) in encouraging Harold to keep up his piano practice. Though he couldn’t read a note of music he had a good sense of pitch and rhythm and knew immediately if Harold made a mistake. He loved to go to listen to concerts and the opera at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, so when Harold and Aunt Ann were earning enough they used to treat him to surprise trips there. He also had a wide-ranging curiosity about other countries and about nature. He used to get hold of books on these subjects from the library and read them all voraciously. His memory for what he read was apparently excellent.
It may just be a coincidence that I share his love of books – not noticeably, of course – and found a new Faith which I enthusiastically embraced rather as he seems to have done. (His passionate and accurate ear for classical music rather missed me out though!) On the other hand a combination of genes and the experiences my mother shared with me about him could easily have influenced me in that direction. Either way my identity owes more than a little to his influence.
But for him my visits to the Guardian’s Resting Place might never have taken place. Who knows!
Graveyard encounters don’t just evoke our ancestors though.
Two views of mortality are strongly connected with images of death such as skulls and tombs: memento mori and carpe diem. Each view of mortality has a different take on morality, interestingly enough:’Gather ye rose buds while ye may’ (Herrick) versus ‘be mindful of thy last end and thou wilt never sin’ (translated from the Vulgate‘s Latin rendering of Ecclesiasticus 7:40). It is a rare sensibility that manages to look both possibilities squarely in the face as Marvell‘s lyric masterpiece To His Coy Mistress succeeds in doing. Shira Wolosky has written a brilliant critique of this feat in The Art of Poetry pages 70-79. She states:
The poem offers, then, not one, but two topoi [themes]: the overt “carpe diem” and a subversive remembrance of death inscribed into the text alongside the call to seduction. . . . . . Both topoi are urgent calls, calls to weigh your life to see what, in its short compass of time and space, you really can accomplish; what, in its short span, really has value; what you should be striving for.
Which view we take hinges as a rule on whether we believe in an afterlife or not.
I have dealt at length in earlier posts with this issue in terms of its truth value and usefulness. It is interesting to add into the mix Robert Wright‘s evolutionary perspective. It is not as dispiriting as you might think.
Evolution and God
In The Evolution of God he attempts to show how the image of good Christians being welcomed by Christ into heaven
may have been crucial in the eventual triumph of Christianity. This image gave it an edge over the religions that didn’t offer hopes of a pleasant afterlife and kept it competitive with the many religions that did.
This image was also a lever to help ensure that people who became Christian behaved in ways that helped the faith succeed socially:
The message has not just got to attract people, but to get them to behave in ways that sustain the religious organisation and spread it. For example: it would help if sin is defined so that the avoidance of it sustains the cohesion and growth of the church.
He ties in the value of a religion with its capacity to create solidarity amongst all the diverse people’s brought together within a developed civilisation. When it is inclusive enough to prevent conflict between all those that trade and travel bring together it works for the benefit of all.
There is a catch for us though:
But [the] modern-day effectiveness is a more complex question. When Christianity reigned in Rome, and, later, when Islam was at the height of its geopolitical influence, the scope of these religions roughly coincided with the scope of whole civilisations. . . . . Today’s world, in contrast, is so interconnected and interdependent that Christianity and Islam, like it or not, inhabit a single social system – the planet.
He sees the progress of civilisation, which has now reached a global level, almost inevitably driving the development of a global faith in only one God with one name.
[As] the scope of social organisation grows, God tends to eventually catch up, drawing a larger expanse of humanity under his protection, or at least a larger expanse of humanity under his toleration.
He sees this as compatible both with a materialist view of the process and a sense of God working through the logic of the universe to bring about this shift in consciousness. He argues that its explicability from a materialist viewpoint does not disprove the religious case.
Which is how my graveyard encounters have led to both a keener sense of the contribution of my ancestors to my view of the world and, with the help of Robert Wright, a keener sense of how awareness of our mortality can underpin an expanding consciousness of God’s purpose for all of us not just for some of us.
Those who wish to see the grave as leaving no room for God are free to do so. Personally, I’ve made a different choice which I believe is equally rational and valid.