1/13/2014

Tombstones and their theology - a beginning rumination.

At St. Peters Episcopal Church, in the little town of Lewes, on the bay by the big water, there are two cemeteries.  The range of theological opinions of living are reflected over time in what they inscribe on the tombstones of those who have died. There is a certain joy in reading some of those inscriptions. 

Here is a fine theological statement from one of the more prominent stones in the old cemetery, the one around the church:

Here Resteth
in Hopes of a Blessed Resurrection
the Body of James, Son of
John & Margaret Welbon
who departed this Life
August 12, 1759,
Aged 24 years.

John and Margaret believed that their son James was there, in the ground, awaiting the blessed resurrection, for which they and all who read the stone might hope.

The theology is straightforward, the dead are really dead, and resurrection is a hope. 

There are many other readings of endings in that graveyard, and I assume in most graveyards. But I have been struck by this one, simple and elegant in its practicality and hope both.

In Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, he wrote of different sorts of tombstones: ones that "looked like heels of stale bread: Devoted Slob Father Of,  Beloved Worked-to-Death Mother Of... "

and then there was this, not a monument but a jar with a note.

"Sacred
to the Memory 
of John Talbot
Who at the Age of Eighteen
Has His Ass Shot Off
In a Honky-Tonk
November 1, 1936,
This Mayonnaise Jar
With Wilted Flowers In It
Was Left Here Six Months Ago
By His Sister,
Who Is In
The Crazy Place Now."

I've always remembered this little poem in the middle of his essay, "Trout Fishing on the Bevel" because he had a poem that used the word Mayonnaise. He had other purposes, of course. John Talbot was also a a figure in Moby Dick, and so on. But I remember Brautigan's words because they rang true to graveyards.

I tried a Mayonnaise poem as a twitter length (140 letters including spaces and punctuation). Here it is:

"The mad lust
for mayonnaise:
I don't need it,
don't want it.

Yet when mayonnaise calls,
its mayonnaise now,
or I am just a hollow nothing."

and a follow up

"OK, so U think
the mayonnaise poem is nothing.
U be poetic about sex
in exactly 140 characters
or write a poem
using the word mayonnaise."

Neither of these, I suppose is worthy of use as an epitaph, something to be carved on a stone or written on a note left with a mayonnaise jar with flowers.  But they were a salute to Brautigan and fun to write.

Words for those who have died are hard to come by. And the theology behind them?  Well who knows - maybe actions "sacred to the memory of John Talbot"  are themselves reflective of a theology. His Sister, crazy or other-wise carried such memory, and the mayonnaise jar became the chalice holding some visceral reality of the flower he was for her.  

I love the simple Episcopal service for the dead. The task is a two-step dance - first commending the person to God and then (slowly turning around) commending ourselves to the care of one another. A small dance, like the small offering of flowers in a jar, or a simple affirmation of hope in a blessed resurrection.  But I wish the words that accompany it - the homily, the "words from friends and family" were simple too.  I think death is a time for simpler words and a theology that hopes, but hopes with the simplicity of a mayonnaise jar of flowers.

Once in 1982 Jim and I walked out in a graveyard along a bayou in Louisiana. Many of the markers were wooden, worn by years of sun and rain. There was Spanish Moss on the trees and a mist off the water. It was quiet and the theology was simple.  People were placed there by people awaiting whatever came next, hoping that those who came to tend the graves would tend themselves as well.


Out in Lakota land we visited a graveyard where there was an upright  pole with a feather tied  on it with a red cloth.  I made a block print of it.  It too had a story. It was a sign that the young man who had been buried there just a week before was a member of a lump, a society, a gang, whatever. But behind the pole was the distant hills and the grass lands, and however he died and whatever the gang was about, the land still is there. 

There is perhaps a theology of the land - in the simple graveyard at St. Peters, in the graveyard by the Bevel River, on the bayou in Louisiana, and out on the high plains in Lakota land, a theology of the landed.  Maybe "when the land calls, it is the land now, or I am jut a hollow thing."  

What if we are called to be somewhere at least spiritually, long enough to claim the right to be buried there? What if we have a theology that calls for having a claim to the ground, because we walked on it and knew it?  Then the lost would be people who had no sense of where they were, no sense of place. And blessed would be those who looked at the stars, or the hills, the streams and fields and city blocks and village green and knew where they were.


1 comment:

Leonard Clark said...

Touched me deep down inside. Thank you, Len/Leonardo