Wednesday, 14 August 2013

A good Puritan...

Ralph Josselin was minister at the town of Earles Colne, in Essex. On the 28th of June 1651 he gave a sermon as part of the funeral rites for Mrs Smythee Harlakenden.

As a good Puritan he had gladly purged all traces of art and colour from his church when Parliment had required it.

Post Reformation the bible and the pulpit dominated the church.

The communion table and the act of taking the sip of wine and fragment of 'bread' was a way to remember Christ, an act of memorial, no longer a mystical renewal of Christ's sacrifice.

The sermon given by Ralph Josselin that June, was printed, and can still be read under the very long title of:
The state of the saints departed, Gods cordial to comfort the saints remaining alive. : a sermon preached at the funeral of Mrs. Smythee Harlakenden wife to William Harlakenden esquire, June 28. 1651. By R.J. pastor of the church at Earls-Colne in Essex.
It provides a fascinating insight into post-Reformation attitudes towards the dead, for those of us who like to untangle the threads of English culture, and particularly the beliefs that surround death.

The first thing to note is Ralph Josselin's use of farming metaphors; the language of harvest home. Death is a celebration when the soul. like corn is, 'safely gathered in' and a funeral is really a festival of thanksgiving.

Ralph Josselin describes Mrs Harlakenden as 'gathered to Jesus'.

'Ripened in faith by many afflictions', she was 'like a rick of corn brought in', he says.

This language was still used in churches when I was about sixteen (I can only guess at why I was there, I'd probably wondered in by accident) it struck me- as a child of the city- that the language was horribly old, an echo from prehistory.

But then, I'd been reading The Golden Bough and so I tried not to laugh as I watched Little John Barleycorn, dancing through the centuries.

I had to stifle a fit of the giggles.
It got that bad!

Three decades latter, John Barleycorn tells me more about the seventeenth century, and certain Cambridge professors, than it ever did about prehistory.

But back to the sermon.
Farming metaphors in this case liken the body to the seed; and the soil in which the seed must lie before becoming corn, to the earthly life.

After its allotted time in darkness the corn is gathered in, and, taken 'home'

Smythee Harlakenden had gone to god 'in her due season'.
So really, death should be a joyful occasion...

But of course, it is not and Ralph Josselin tries to explain how the pain of separation must be borne, because to fail to bear it was to be selfish.

He writes: 'Did god not make thy wife and thy daughter whom thou bemoanest more for himself than for thee?'

The bereaved must get 'above' grief by remembering that the dead had exchanged this earthly cottage for heavenly mansions and the company of family and friends for the company of Jesus!

Why then the tears, what is there to cry about?!

To sink into grief is to stew in self-pity, a pointless exercise, a willful torment and a sign that one distrusts the providence of god.

'God' said Ralph Josselin, 'would have us forget the dead'.

I wasn't exactly brought up to think this way, but I live in a country where a stiff upper lip designates self-control and the funeral rituals of my family occurred the way they did because we live here.

Living somewhere doesn't mean one agrees with what happens, but it means that one will have to pretend that one agrees, most, if not all of the time.

The first funeral I attended convinced me that the rituals were so at odds with what I felt, that something very terrible must have happened in this country.

Grief, is an honest response.
What, terrible thing must have happened to make lying a necessity?
I was in it, I felt the need to lie, but I resented it.

After a few funerals: my grandmother and aunt, my uncle Joe (by now I'm about 20 years old) I began to get the pattern.

After the funeral has been booked a member of the family cooks a turkey.
The turkey (cooked and cold) is brought over on the morning of the funeral. People will come back to the house of the dead, where they will talk about how good the dead person was, and re-tell memories of happier times and eat sandwiches.

But before then not a proper thing to do at a funeral.

The black cars
The awful crematorium.
The men in grey boiler suits removing the flowers from the previous funeral and replacing them with ours..

The other cars driving out from under the portico as your funeral cars arrive

Kind of conveyer belt...

Once inside.
Quiet, preferably inaudible sobbing is permissible for close family, but you must take care not to let the misery spread outwards and affect anyone else. If you are asked how you are feeling now, it is imperative to smile and say that you are OK.

Protestant theology teaches that souls are either bound for heaven or hell at the moment of death.

Really, according to this theology, there is nothing that you can do for them.

It is just better for everyone if you put on a brave face.

So it is little wonder then that I went off to learn more, that I refused to agree that this purity of resolve would do when it feels so alien and plain wrong.

And yet, here is a second example of a prohibition on tears for the dead.

When Jinpa died we would go to his room each evening and sit by his coffin to recite prayer, and yet again the rule was not to cry or show sadness because Jinpa was still around. The reason for the prohibition on tears is that it takes time for consciousness to drain away, it takes days not minuets to be properly dead, and so we didn't cry, for his sake. Crying would disturb him, better to surround him with prayers and to make offerings to the deities and to know that Jinpa would be following the same rituals with us as a familiar habit...whilst dead until gone.

The prohibition on sadness in the latter case made sense to me.
In the former, it was just cruel.

I began to believe that a lot of the things that are supposed to be derived from a specific religion are simply fragments of feeling converted into ritual. Meanings are retro-fitted, to make sense of what is done.

Yet there are lineages of behavior and some forms that definitely fit one person better than others...

As The Descent of Inana makes clear, it is right to lament the dead by allowing the pain to beat the drums in the temple, to cut ones skin and to lie in the dirt:

Nincubura threw herself at her (Inana's) feet at the door of the Ganzer. She had sat in the dust and clothed herself in a filthy garment. The demons said to holy Inana: "Inana, proceed to your city, we will take her back."
Holy Inana answered the demons: "This is my minister of fair words, my escort of trustworthy words. She did not forget my instructions. She did not neglect the orders I gave her. She made a lament for me on the ruin mounds. She beat the drum for me in the sanctuaries. She made the rounds of the gods' houses for me. She lacerated her eyes for me, lacerated her nose for me. She lacerated her ears for me in public. In private, she lacerated her buttocks for me. Like a pauper, she clothed herself in a single garment...
And you can do it that way here.

There are no overtly anti-Catholic, anti-New Age, or more relevant to me, no anti-Mesopotamian re-constructionist laws (though animal sacrifice will get you into trouble)....

Just friends and family may not understand and worry needlessly.