"They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning
We will remember them."
IN dealing with the subject of this chapter, important as it is, to some extent it is outside the general purpose of this book, which properly ends with the consideration of burial. The writer claims and hopes to have demonstrated the fact that the funeral traditions to which we unreasonably and tenaciously cling are not dictated by our religious beliefs, and only approach them in those cases where obviously pagan or Jewish customs have been made use of by the churches, as a means of expressing a Christian sentiment.
From the earliest times, and by people widely divided in their mode of life and their beliefs in a future spiritual existence, the special care for the well-being of the soul after death has been a primary consideration.
What is generally referred to as the "worship of the dead" is one of the primitive instincts.
To speak of worship in this sense, is, however, misleading, for it is possible to correctly place a variety of widely different interpretations on the word, which expresses anything from theÊ"paying of divine honour" to "treating with civil reverence." What is the sense of the word in the marriage service, for instance, "with my body I thee worship?"
History offers many examples of the "worship of the dead" in either of these senses, and in various shades of intermediate reasoning.
The ancient cult of ancestor worship gave a special significance to the virtues of family life, for it placed a serious load of responsibility upon the children of the future generation, to carry forward not only the traditions of the family to which they belonged, but also to tend lovingly and faithfully in varying fortune the spiritual and even temporal necessities of those who had gone before them. Ancestor worship is, moreover, directly associated with the special privileges and responsibilities of the first-born son, who assumed with his inheritance certain definite duties, nor were these duties a pledge of sentiment only. Further, it alone explains many of our present-day notions concerning succession.
It was the duty of the first-born son to tend and protect the graves of his ancestors, supplying food and performing many elaborate ceremonies. In another chapter we have dealt with food offerings and sacrifices founded on the belief that the spiritual counterpart at least of the material substance offered was necessary in order to protect the soul from actual starvation.
The practice is still general in the East to-day, whilst the enlightened West continues the superstition as long as it is content to sacrifice "offerings" of costly exotic flowers to wither and perish with a few hours' exposure at the graveside.
What we have chiefly to consider now is the offering of prayers for the welfare of the departed souls, and to trace the history of this very general usage.
The first thing that must strike an unprejudiced mind is the fact that like the Eastern food offerings, either prayers are--or they are not--absolutely necessary to the departed spirits. Was the welfare or the existence of the soul imperilled, whose children neglected to provide the food offering? Either it starved or it did not, there could be no half measures.
Does the soul whose relatives neglect or refuse prayers for its repose and spiritual welfare suffer in any way as a direct consequence of this neglect? Either it does or it does not--once again, there can be no half measures.
When we study the special festivals for the commemoration of the dead we shall find a strange counterpart of the feasts of "All Souls" and "All Saints," and moreover, timed in the same month, and frequently on the same day as the Christian festivals.
Haliburton tells us that the festival of the dead or feast of ancestors is now, or was formerly observed at or near the beginning of November by the Peruvians, the Hindus, the Pacific Islanders, the people of the Tonga Islands, the Australians, the ancient Persians, the ancient Egyptians and the northern nations of Europe, and continued for three days amongst the Japanese, the Hindus, the Australians, ancient Romans and the ancient Egyptians. The month of November was formerly called in Persia "the month of the Angel of Death."
With regard to the Peruvian festivities of the dead, he writes "The month in which it occurs, says Rivers, is called Aya Marca, from Aya a corpse, and Marca 'carrying in arms,' because they celebrated the solemn festival of the dead with tears and lugubrious songs and plaintive music, and it was customary to visit the tombs of relations and to leave food and drink, and this on the same day as the Christian festival (November 2nd). In Mexico the festival of the dead was held on November 17th, and a human victim was offered up to avert the dread calamity believed to be impending over the human race."
The Corsicans slaughtered oxen at the grave, giving the meat to their neighbours in honour of the dead. Bread, wine and meat were thus distributed, whilst in modern times bread and wine are served to the poor in this manner on the anniversary of the death of those who can afford to do so, and particularly on the feast of the dead, November 1st.
Garnier says that "in Rome the festival of the dead, or Feralia (called Dii Manes or 'The day of the spirits of the dead'), commenced on February 17th, corresponding also to the 17th day of the second month." Many other instances could be quoted.
In some countries it is believed that on the special day set apart in honour of the dead, the spirits return for the occasion in order to be once more with their friends.
In Japan on this festival, little boats made of straw and paper are placed on the water in order that the souls may thus be conveyed to their relations.
In Brittany a plate of pancakes is provided for their entertainment, but the ghostly visitors must not linger too long over their meal, for they are bound to return to the spirit world before cockcrow.
The Serbians give their dead a special entertainment on the occasion of the Feast of their Patron Saint George (May 6th, orthodox calendar). It is a time of much rejoicing, and is accompanied by a great slaughtering of animals, which are roasted on spits in the open air. The graves are decked with flowers in profusion, whilst the choicest dainties are also placed there for the delectation of the honoured dead.
This is an ancient pagan ceremony of ancestor worship which, since Christian times, has been respectably hidden beneath the cloak of St. George.
What is the fate, we may ask, of those unfortunate souls who by disaster or mischance have failed to secure a resting-place in the burial grounds, and are therefore likely to be left out in the cold in these annual rejoicings--the patriot, for instance, dying for his country on some foreign field of battle--how is he to be provided with material or spiritual refreshment?
Such a fate was more dreaded by the ancients than the most violent means of death. It was even used as a form of final insult and degradation after the worst that could be inflicted on the poor wretch's body had been done. It was a revenge more horrible than the "drawing and quartering" of the body which once expressed the last word in contempt and hatred in this country.
An Act passed as a result of the rising in Scotland in the year 1745, and not repealed till 1772, necessitated the taking of a very binding oath against the carrying of arms. It is interesting as showing the horror expressed at that time of the thought of a non-Christian burial. "If I do so (carry arms, etc.), may I be cursed in my undertakings, family and property--may I never see my wife and children, father, mother or relations--may I be killed in battle as a coward, and lie without Christian burial in a strange land, far from the graves of my forefathers and kindredi-may all this come across me if I break my oath."
The cenotaph or empty tomb of which many of our memorials are a remnant, was erected when the body lay elsewhere, in order that due honours might be paid to the dead.
We are reminded how the vanquished Hector begged upon his knees--not for his life--but that his body might not be given to the dogs. "Take the gold my father will offer you," he supplicates, "that I may have honour at the funeral pyre." The thought that his body should be chopped and hewn by "The Seller-of-the-Dead" and weighed against its weight in gold held no terrors to his mind compared with a dishonoured sepulture.
First in the pagan mind was the apprehension of an endless torment, of neglect at the tomb, hunger, thirst and helplessness.
How touching, too, is the old story of the parents of the dead Athenian soldiers, who, dressed in mourning garments, clamoured before the Council--and not in vain--for the execution of the victorious general, despite the fact that he had returned a victor--had indeed saved Athens from the spoilers--in his haste to claim his laurels he had left the dead unburned on the field of battle. To appreciate the story we must remember that the Greeks committed the bodies of the slain to the flames of the funeral pyre on the battlefield, the bones being collected and brought back toÊAthens with the utmost reverence, where with much solemnity, orations and processions they were provided with a fitting tomb.
Again we may ask what of the sailor who dies at sea?
The fisherfolk of Brittany have a picturesque custom to keep alive the memory of those poor fishermen of whom the sea yearly takes its heavy toll.
On receiving the news that a sailor had been drowned, the parents or nearest relatives constructed a cross of wood which they placed on the empty bed or on the family table; candles were lighted and placed round the cross, whilst the friends and relatives of the deceased were summoned to spend the night in the house, where prayers were said for his soul exactly as if the body were present. On the following day a procession was formed and the cross carried to where Mass was said. At an earlier period the cross which reposed on the altar during the ceremony was afterwards buried, but in more recent times it was deposited in an urn and left in the church till several other crosses were collected, when the whole were buried.
On All Saints' Day the womenfolk make a trip in the boats, and having sailed a certain distance from the shore they solemnly recite the "De Profundis" for their husbands, sons and brothers who have been drowned in earning a scanty livelihood, and whose bodies have not been recovered.
We cannot go very deeply into the custom of offering of prayers for the welfare of the dead without realizing that the practice presupposes some state other than the states of bliss, or of final condemnation. As far as the Christian standpoint is concerned it brings us to the highly controversial question of the existence or non-existence of the intermediary realms of purgatory, where it is believed by the Greek and Roman Churches that the souls of the departed work out the results of their misdoings during their life upon earth, and here--and here only--can be helped by the intercession of their friends and relatives.
In the "Zuna" or holy book of the Moors (Mohammedan) we read that when a man dies two angels visit his grave, one bearing a rake and another a heavy iron weight. Presently a third angel appears and begins to question the dead man as to his mode of life. Did he give alms to the needy? Did he observe the various rites in connection with his religion? If these questions were answered to the satisfaction of the inquisitor then two attendants were summoned who were in robes of dazzling whiteness; one of these took the head of the corpse and the other the feet, and so lifting it from the grave they hold it in this manner till the Day of Judgment. If, on the other hand, the inquisitors were not satisfied with the replies to their questions, or had reason to suppose that the truth was being withheld, then he called to the angel who bore the iron weight with which the corpse was crushed back again into the grave "seven forearms deep." When this had been done the angel with the rake proceeded to drag the body up again, and so this unrestful process continues without cessation till the Judgment Day.
This crude conception of a purgatory necessitated a special form of tomb in which a tiled space was provided so that the corpse could kneel during its interrogation. It was further provided that the grave clothes were not fastened in such a manner as might restrict the movements of the body. Attached to the shroud was a letter written with saffron and saft water, by means of which an appeal was made to the Angel of Justice that the corpse might altogether escape or at least have a speedy release from the purgatorial pains.
The ancient Egyptians preserved the body in the belief that in a space of three or four thousand years the soul would return to inhabit its earthly form once more. In the meantime it was thought to wander through a series of incarnations in the shape of the lower animals, which for this reason are not killed for food.
In view of the fact that the early Christians adopted such Jewish customs as the anointing of the body because this was done traditionally with the body of their Founder, it is interesting, before examining the Christian tradition, to ascertain if the Jews themselves believed that prayers for the dead were effective or necessary.
"As the well-known passage in the second book of Machabeus (2 Mach. xii. 44-46) abundantly proves," says Thurston, "the idea of a resurrection and the belief that the time of that resurrection might be accelerated by the intercession of the living was present to the minds of some at least of the Jews in the first or second century before the Christian era." The sacred writer states in unmistakable terms that, "If he (Judas Machabeus) had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. . . . It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins."
"It may be said that the praver known as the Kaddish is now commonly considered by the Jews to have the power of releasing the soul of the deceased from punishment in the next world."
A curious case came before the Whitechapel County Court (1916). A Jew, whose aunt had lent the sum of £47 to a builder, sued him for the repayment of the loan on which a few instalments had been returned before the death of the lender. The defence was put forward that it had been agreed that in the event of death any balance of the loan then due was to be cancelled on the understanding that the borrower should say prayers for the repose of her soul. This unique agreement was said to have been made in the presence of witnesses, who "crossed hands" over the covenant. For the plaintiff it was claimed that prayers purchased were not considered as of value by the Jews, and that the builder in order to cover his debt, would have had to pray for nearly a year.
This incident, however, clearly shows that praying for the dead is still a Jewish custom.
Thurston gives some interesting particulars of early Christian practices. He says:
"The earliest unmistakable example of Christian prayers for the dead is probably that afforded by the famous Abercius monument, discovered some years ago at Hieropolos, in Upper Phrygia, by Sir William Ramsay. The significant part of the inscription which alludes allegorically to many of the most distinctive mysteries of the Christian faith, terminates with the line--'That the fellow-believer who understands these words, pray for Abercius.'"
Here is another of the third century. The broken slab containing it is now in the Christian Museum of the Lateran.
"To sweet Lucifera, my wife all sweetness,
To her husband nought remains but deepest grief,
But she has surely merited to have an epitaph set up to her,
That whoso of the Brotherhood who read it may pray to God
That he take to Himself her holy and innocent soul."
It should be remembered that whilst the early Christians made a special point of celebrating the anniversaries and the festivals of the Saints and the departed generally, they did not think it necessary to mark the actual year of the decease, so that it is often rendered very difficult to trace the period.
There seems to be abundant evidence that from the earliest days of Christianity prayers for the dead were a common practice, as they are to-day, in the Roman, Greek and other Churches throughout the world.
In our own country, the Established Church definitely repudiates the existence of the spiritual state of purgatory or place of purification, and therefore also the value of prayer as helpful to the dead.
The authoritative decrees of the various denominations merely denote the position of each.
The Catholic view was defined by the Council of Trent, viz., "That there is a purgatory and that the souls there detained are assisted by the suffrages of the Faithful, but 'especially by the most acceptable sacrifice at the altar'" (i.e., the Mass).
In pre-Reformation days this doctrine was responsible for the erection of many churches, the foundations of many charities and the support of the chantry and the chantry priest. The chantry chapels were built as a memorial of the founder, where the priest frequently said various offices for the dead and celebrated a special Mass on the anniversaries of the founder and his family, and distributed alms to the poor.
Ditchfield says, "There were in England about two thousand chantries, founded chiefly in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which were all despoiled by Henry VIII and Edward VI at the Reformation, on the grounds that they were devoted to 'superstitious' purposes. Much of the wealth was the property of the poor left to them by pious benefactors."
The Established Church holds that purgatory and therefore prayers for the dead cannot be supported by the Scriptures. This position is defined in the twenty-second Article of Faith, to which all her clergy subscribe, which reads, "The Romish doctrine concerning purgatory is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God."
However, there appears to be a tendency amongst a certain section of the clergy of the Church of England to-day to fall into line with the rest of Christendom in the belief not only of the existence of purgatory, but in the practice of praying for the souls of the departed.
At the Westminster Assembly of Divines in the year 1647 the Presbyterians put on record their belief in this matter, which may be held to be that of the Free Churches generally. Dealing with "the state of man after death" they assent in the belief of heaven and hell, and conclude, "besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the Scriptures acknowledge none."
In the year 1645 the "Directory for the Public Worship of God "decreed" concerning the burial of the dead, and because the custom of kneeling down and praying by or towards the dead corpse, and other such usages in the place where it lies, before it be carried to burial, are superstitions, and for that praying, reading and singing, both in going to and at the grave, have been grossly abused and are in no way beneficial to the living, therefore let all such things be laid aside."
At the time of the Reformation the "Directory" made the further unmistakable protest to the older custom, "when any person departs this life, let the body be decently attended from the house to the place appointed for public burial and there immediately interred without any ceremony."
Let us now look at the festivals of All Saints and All Souls, which, as we have noted, appear in the Christian calendar at much the same time as they are celebrated by non-Christian peoples in various parts of the world.
All Saints' Day, November 1st, known also as All-Hallows' Day, was instituted in the year 837 by Pope Gregory IV to take the place of the much earlier festival of the Peace of the Martyrs.
All Souls' Day is said to have been instituted in the year 1048 by St. Odilo of Cluny. It is celebrated on November 2nd in addition to the feast of All Saints by the Roman and Greek Churches, for the special memory of the souls in purgatory. All-Hallows' Eve is still observed in many families by games and superstitions which are a relic of pre-Reformation times, when the eve of the festival of All Souls was welcomed by a great burning of fires on the hills, to attract the wandering spirits, and the ringing of bells.
In some parts of England the occasion is kept in mind by the children who sing from house to house, as they sing the Christmas carols:
"Soul, soul for a souling cake,
I pray you, good missus, for a souling cake,
Go down in your cellars and see what you can find,
Your apples or your pears or your good red wine;
If you ain't got a penny, a ha'penny will do,
If you ain't got a ha'penny, then God bless you."
This request is followed by the customary "bang" of the knocker, as a reminder that a gift of some kind is expected. Needless to say, the modern child is simply "out for spoil," but in the old days the poor seriously collected in this manner the wherewithal to celebrate the least of All Souls which was kept on the following day in good earnest, with a great consumption of cakes and "wassail" (a concoction of apples, sugar and spiced ale). "Soul-cakes" were baked for this occasion similar to the "soul-cakes" of Belgium, which are distributed to-day at the funeral repast.
The connection between this feast and the eating of apples calls to mind an interesting ceremony which was at one time common in Brittany, where the cult of the dead has ever been rigorously observed. On All Souls' Day in every parish several houses would be opened for the purposes of the festival, which was celebrated in the following manner:
A cake of bread was baked and placed on the kitchen table, which was covered with a "fair white cloth." Planted in the centre of the bread was a little tree, from the end of whose branches red apples were suspended. The whole was covered by a serviette.
The neighbours being assembled round the tree, the master of the house proceeded to recite the special prayers for the repose of the souls of the dead, to which the people made the customary responses. At the conclusion of the prayers, the serviette was lifted and the bread was cut into as many pieces as there were persons present to receive it. Each, as he took his portion, was expected to make a small payment. Should anyone withhold his money, it was believed that he would shortly meet with the greatest misfortunes, brought about by the revengeful spirits of his parents. The money so collected was given to the church in order that Masses might be said for the repose of the souls in purgatory. At night, the tree which had graced the ceremony was carried away with great respect by the person selected to act as host on the next anniversary. The apples might be eaten, but the tree was a sacred trust, to be tended with care till the following year, when a fresh supply of apples was provided.
In the West of England, cider making commenced on All Saints' Day and for the reason that it was connected with the pagan autumn or fruit festival, for which the Christian Church substitutes the feast of the dead.
Under the name of "La Mas Ubhal," or "Apple Mass," it was at one time recognized in Ireland.
We may also trace a connection in the custom, which is hardly extinct in this country, for the farmer to give a supper to his men on All Saints' Day to mark the end of the wheat sowing. Tusser thus refers to the practice:
"Wife, sometime this week if ye weather hold clere,
And end of wheate sowing we make for the yeare,
Remember ye therefore, though I do not,
The seed cake, the pastries, the furmety pot."
Let us see what traces exist in modern times of the ancient cult of ancestor worship.
In France, to-day, we still find the light-hearted Parisian lunching at the cemetery each year, on the occasion of the feast of the dead, and decorating the graves of his ancestors. A Catholic country and a Catholic practice, it may be said, yet we find the Welsh--staunch Protestants as they are--decorating their graves with flowers at the great November festival.
The "memorial card" still holds its own in this country as a necessary part of the funeral observances, though its original function, as a reminder to pray for the soul of the departed, may have been forgotten.
It sometimes happens on the Continent at carnival time that the gorgeous procession of fantastic revellers is confronted by a procession of quite another character--a passing funeral. At once a respectful silence hushes the noisy laughter. Instantly a hundred silly headgears are doffed, whilst with bent heads a prayer is muttered for the repose of the soul of the departed.
In our own streets, the roughest wayfarer--more often than men of other classes--pulls off his cap--perhaps a little self-consciously--when he meets the dead. Ask him why he does so, and he cannot tell you--"out of respect" he may answer, after thinking the matter over, possibly for the first time, for he is all unconscious that he is merely obeying a traditional impulse which has its roots in pre-Reformation piety.
The writer witnessed the following incident in a crowded London street.
Four soldiers, one a Belgian and three Englishmen, were standing on the kerb when a funeral passed by. The English Tommies gazed at the commonplace sight disinterestedly and continued to smoke; directly the Belgian caught sight of the procession, he clicked his heels and came smartly to attention, raising his hand to the "salute," and keeping it so till the hearse had passed. The English soldiers watched the little Belgian for a moment and first one, then two, followed by a hesitating third, cigarette dropped half-finished into the gutter.
Perhaps no more remarkable example could be found of the deeply rooted belief in the service due from the living to the dead, than the custom of erecting "war shrines " in the streets--a practice which became very general throughout the country after the war. Not content with the "roll of honour" which might reasonably be disassociated from any charge of worship, these "shrines" as they are commonly called (Nuttall defines a shrine as "a case, a reliquary, a tomb, a sacred place") are to be found as a rule outside a place of Protestant worship, where they have been erected by loving hands. A Crucifix is generally placed over the shrine, which is decorated with floral offerings. Lest we should misjudge the intention, let us take an extract from the daily press, which is lartgely responsible for the movement.
In an article in the Evening News, we read:
"Even now, many people may have but a hazy idea of what a 'war shrine' is. A 'war shrine' is a roll of honour, on the tablets of which the names of those who have gone from the street in which the shrine stands into the navy and the army, and those who have died for their country, are written. The frame contains a form of prayer for the men. There is a canopy of flags, and the whole is ornamented by flowers, laid fresh upon the shrine by the wives and children, sisters and sweethearts who stand in silent prayer for the heroes for a few moments every day."
To suggest that these war shrines are a public rejection of the Protestant doctrine on the subject of prayer for the dead would be to overstate the case, nor is there necessarily any intention shown in this surely very beautiful innovation to return to Catholic and pre-Reformation practices, but that it points to a deeply inherent desire to bridge the gulf, which has in this country separated the living from the dead, is equally incontestable. The "war shrines" would certainly have shocked the narrow views held even one generation ago.
Every year adds to the number of those who for one reason or another prefer to remain outside the sphere of the generally recognized Christian denominations, but who by no means accept the views of the materialist. It is always interesting to follow the trend of their inquiries, and we shall do well to study their views where we find them definitely expressed. What, for instance, have they to say who are unbound by traditional doctrine on such a subject as the utility or otherwise of prayers for the dead?
From an article on the subject contributed to the International Psychic Gazette, we quote the following:
"Side by side with the enlarged views of life advanced by the new theology, we have ever multiplying instances of the ability of some gifted persons to act as mediums for communicating with the unseen world. Everything of this nature must tend to raise the question--can we by our sympathy and prayers do anything to help departed souls along the path of progress we believe it is their destiny to tread? Will our prayers for them avail to bring them the help they need? I have not the slightest hesitation in answering these questions in the affirmative, for my own experiences leave me without a shadow of doubt."
The writer of the article then proceeds to relate personal experiences resulting from a mission he was called upon to undertake "from the Unseen," to help "unprogressed souls in the Unseen" who were brought to him for the purpose. He describes the state after death where he tells us all souls progressed, or unprogressed, make a stay according to their individual necessities, in which they learn the lessons they should have learned on earth before going on to a higher existence, and he adds "it is these unprogressed ones who want all the sympathy and help their friends on earth can give them." Further, he quotes a story said to have been related to him "by one of the clergy of St. Peter's, London Docks, of a woman who had recently passed away appearing to reproach a district visitor for a forgotten promise to pray for her soul, a fact afterwards verified by notes."
Not only at the time of death, but on the anniversary of the event, and on special festivals and occasions of family importance, it has been the custom to honour the dead in various ways.
The anniversary has always been celebrated with certain formalities, a curious method being the "chime-barrel," the prototype of the barrel organ, on which a dirge is played from street to street in order that the neighbours might not forget to offer their prayers for the repose of the soul of those whose memory was thus kept green.
In Brittany even the betrothal ceremony was blessed by the departed ancestral spirits, an instance of the intimate relations which tied the "quick and the dead."
It was the proper thing for the lover to send a message to plead the cause with the father of his beloved. This was done in verse, which after setting forth the qualifications of the suitor and the depths of his passionate devotion to the lady, ended thus: "the benediction of the dead of your family I cannot ask, because in so doing I should render sad the many loving hearts; better is it, therefore, to pray for their souls, and I beg of you to join me in saying a song for their repose." The song having been said, the "De Profundis" was recited, after which the parents would give or withhold their consent to the union as circumstances might dictate. It was believed that if this ceremony should be omitted the spirits of the slighted ancestors would surely avenge themselves on the bride.
Whilst on the subject of marriage we are reminded of a present-day custom. In the Roman Catholic church a coin, the symbol of worldly possession, with which the bridegroom promises to "thee endow," is afterwards treasured all her life by the bride in order that it may eventually be given back to the church for Masses to be said for whoever dies first, the husband or the wife.
To hold that the question of the value of prayers for the dead is merely one of personal opinion seems unreasonable, for the intercession of the living is either of vital importance or superstitious and useless. It is, however, a matter in which each must act according to his lights, and perhaps the brief outline which is all that it has been possible to give in considering the whole aspect of our funeral customs, may serve at least to remind those who have never given any thought to the matter of the importance of this controversial problem.