Thursday, 12 April 2012

Dealings with the dead - 1856

Project Gutenburg 
Dealings with the Dead
"This is a very solemn service, when it is properly performed. When I was a youngster, Grossman was Sexton of Trinity Church, and Parker was Bishop. Never were two men better calculated to give the true effect to this service. The Bishop was a very tall, erect person, with a deep, sonorous voice; and, in the earth-to-earth part, Grossman had no rival. I used to think, then, it would be the height of my ambition to fill Grossman’s place, if I should live to be a man. When I was eight years old, I sometimes, though it frightened me half to death, dropped in, as an amateur, when there was a funeral at Trinity.

I am not, on common occasions, in favor of reviving the old way of performing a considerable part of the service, under the church, among the vaults. The women, and feeble, and nervous people will go down, of course; and getting to be buried becomes contagious. It does them no good, if they don’t catch their deaths. But, as things are now managed, the most solemn part of the service is made quite ridiculous. In 1796, I was at a funeral, under Trinity Church. I went below with the mourners. The body was carried into a dimly-lighted vault. I was so small and short, that I could see scarcely anything. But the deep, sepulchral voice of Mr. Parker—he was not Bishop then—filled me with a most delightful horror. I listened and shivered. At length he uttered the words, “earth to earth,” and Grossman, who did his duty, marvellously well, when he was sober, rattled on the coffin a whole[ shovelful of coarse gravel—“ashes to ashes”—another shovelful of gravel—“dust to dust”—another: it seemed as if shovel and all were cast upon the coffin lid. I never forgot it. My way home from school was through Summer Street. Returning often, in short days, after dusk, I have run, at the top of my speed, till I had gotten as far beyond Trinity, as Tommy Russell’s, opposite what now is Kingston Street.

Grantham Parish Church
A great change has taken place, since I became a sexton. I suppose that part of the service is the most solemn, where the body is committed to the ground; and it is clearly a pity, that anything should occur, to lessen the solemnity. As soon as the minister utters the words, “Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God,” &c., the coffin being in the broad aisle, the sexton, now-a-days, steps up to the right of it, and makes ready by stooping down, and picking up a little sand, out of a box or saucer—a few more words, and he takes aim—“earth to earth,” and he fires an insignificant portion of it on to the coffin—“ashes to ashes,” and he fires another volley—“dust to dust,” and he throws the balance, commonly wiping his hand on his sleeve. There is something, insufferably awkward, in the performance. I heard a young sexton say, last week, he had rather bury half the congregation, than go through this comic part. There is some grace, in the action of a farmer, sowing barley; but there is a feeling of embarrassment, in this miserable illustration of casting in the clods upon the dead, which characterizes the performance. The sexton commonly tosses the sand on the coffin, turning his head the other way, and rather downward, as if he were sensible, that he was performing an awkward ceremony. For myself, I am about retiring, and it is of little moment to me. But I hope something better will be thought of. What would poor old Grossman say!"


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