Since at least the 11th century, western Christians have prayed for the dead on this day, All Souls Day. Others have written here about the history of All Souls Day, its abeyance in classical Anglicanism, and its modern reappearance (in somewhat chastened form) as the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. It’s a fascinating history and it raises theological questions, which would reward exploration. Today, I want simply to offer some meditations on what binds us, the living, to the departed.
Near the beginning of her inimitable and wide-ranging traveler’s account of the history and significance of the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, author Rebecca West reflects on the 1934 assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia. The King had just arrived in Marseilles for an official state visit to France and was being driven from the port to the city center in an open car, when, within a few hundred yards of starting, he was shot dead by a young man from Bulgaria. The assassination was captured on film, as the newsreel cameramen were stationed only a short distance away. Here is what Dame West writes about that footage:
The camera returns to the car and we see the King. He is lying almost flat on his back on the seat. … It is certain that he is dying, because he is the centre of a manifestation which would not happen unless the living had been shocked out of their reserve by the presence of death. Innumerable hands are caressing him. Hands are coming from everywhere, over the back of the car, over the sides, through the windows, to caress the dying King, and they are supremely kind. They are far kinder than faces can be, for faces are Marthas, burdened with many cares because of their close connexion with the mind, but these hands express the mindless sympathy of living flesh for flesh that is about to die, the pure physical basis for pity. They are men’s hands, but they move tenderly as the hands of women fondling their babies, they stroke his cheek as if they were washing it with kindness.
Have you, I wonder, experienced what Rebecca West describes? The way in which the presence of death — or its specter — can call forth such kindness in the gestures of strangers?
I have witnessed it in the tenderness of a hospice nurse towards his patient, in the way in which his kind hands gently stroked her hair, as if she were his own mother, his own child. And the other day, I was surprised to find myself cradling my father’s face with my hand, after he had taken a hard fall while we were running together, and I was wiping blood from his forehead. He was not dying, thanks be to God, but nevertheless his distress had called forth this uncharacteristic gesture.
What draws our hands to caress the dying? To tenderly stroke the cheek of a stranger?
Perhaps it is a pre-conscious recognition of the bonds of our common humanity. An instinct for what John Donne called our involvement in mankind. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” he wrote in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” (Meditation XVII).
Perhaps the presence of death jolts us with a shock of recognition, as when, out of the corner of our eye, we unexpectedly see our reflection in a mirror. The writer and palliative care nurse Sallie Tisdale experienced such a shock when, in her college Anatomy & Physiology laboratory, she was dissecting the hand of a cadaver. In her Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them), she writes, “Working with cadavers makes it clear what death is. A subject becomes an object. A person becomes a body. And, miraculously, turns back: this body, this firm, immobile object, is, was, a person, a warm, breathing person.”
With a jolt, I realized that what I was cutting apart had been a living hand, just like mine; that it had been pliant and animated. It had held a pen, shoveled dirt, bathed a child, stroked someone’s hair. That it was like my precious hands, which until that moment had simply been part of me. Alive. I realized, This man is like me. I already knew that this body was like my body; I could label its parts. But suddenly I knew that this man was like me. And that I would be like this man.
In the year of our Lord 1376, Edward of Woodstock, the Prince of Wales, “the Black Prince,” died. He was buried in Canterbury Cathedral. He left instructions in his will for the design of his tomb. Edward’s effigy lies atop the tomb, and an inscription of his own specification is carved in its sides. Loosely translated, the inscription reads in part:
You who pass silently by here where this body rests, listen to what I would say to you if I could speak. Such as you are, I once was; you will become such as I am. I did not think much about death while I was alive. On earth I had great riches which I held in high state. And land, mansions and great treasure, hangings, horses, silver and gold. But now I am poor and wretched as I lie here in the dust. My fine appearance is all gone, my flesh is all decayed; my mansion meagre and narrow. You would not believe that it is I if you were to see me now. You would never think this was any man, so totally changed am I. For God, pray to the king in heaven that he may have mercy on my soul.
Notice how Edward’s inscription appeals you, as you pass by, to recognize your destiny in his. “Such as you are, I once was; you will become such as I am.” The inscription aims to shock you into recognizing the truth about your mortality, to disclose what binds you to the departed Prince. And, through this recognition, to lead you to pray God to have mercy on his soul, as you would have others do for you.
We, the living, are bound to the departed through the bonds of our common nature, our shared flesh and blood, our mortal bodies that are destined for dust, our common need for the mercy of God. And we are also bound together in hope, in the hope of the resurrection of the body.
In the old burial service in the Book of Common Prayer, the minister is directed to say the following words at the grave, as earth is cast on the body of the departed:
Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.
In one breath, the Church commends the body to its doom in dust, and at the same time proclaims the hope of new life for that very body.
The graveside prayer quotes from Philippians 3:20-21, where St. Paul writes, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” The whole Church in paradise and earth is bound together in the hope of the Resurrection, in a common future with changed bodies that will share a common likeness to the glorious body of Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. And it is thus that, even at the grave, we cry, Alleluia.
Fr. Christopher Yoder serves as rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City.
Thank you, Chris. The King Alexander account is very stirring. I lost both parents, our Catholic priest friend in Courances France, and almost my wife in a short span. I was travelling afterward on a language school outing, outside Roanne, and saw this inscription carved in swtone above a vault. Your note about “the Black Prince” brought it to mind. Death as of course far closer than in our ‘modern’ age.
Par ou tu passes j’ai passe
Par ou j’ai passe tu passeras
Comme toi au monde j’etais
Et comme moi tu seras