The Glass Walking Stick

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ST AUGUSTINE, if I remember right, said, among many other shrewd things about the relation of religious cited to social custom: ‘Funeral ceremonies are not a tribute to the dead, but to the living.’ it is part of a truth that is constantly forgotten in controversy about ceremonial and symbol. Yet it is a point upon which the Puritan is really less religious than the Pagan. If you had gone up to an ancient Greek in the time of Plato, as he stood offering sacrifice to Athene, you might very well have asked with some curiosity the question about the ancients that has never been quite satisfactorily answered by any of the moderns: ‘Do you really believe that the pure goddess of wisdom wishes you to kill or burn something on this particular stone? Does she really require this above all other things?’ But the Athenian, if he were as intelligent as most Athenians, might very well answer you by saying: ‘Whether or no Athene requires it, I am sure that I require it.’ If you went into the household temple of a Chinaman and found him burning pieces of paper to appease his great-grandfather, you might ask him what good his great-grandfather would get by that. But the Chinaman would really have the best of the argument if he answered, ‘I do not fully understand the good it does to my great-grandfather, but I do understand the good it does to me.’

To find expression in emblem and established ritual for feelings that are most difficult to express in words is not merely a salute to the departed; it is also a liberating gesture for the living. It is even especially an expression of the life of the living. The practical alternative to it is not speech but silence; not simplicity, but merely embarrassment. Not one man in a thousand ever says any thing worthy of the dead, or even at all adequate to his own emotions about the dead. It is a far fuller release for his feelings to do something; and especially something that is not too unusual or unnatural to do. The motions that men have always made, uncovering, bowing the head, scattering flowers on the grave, are in the real sense individual actions. They are not only more dignified, but more direct than official speech or extempore prayer. They are not only more serious, but more spontaneous than the ghastly mummery of ‘saying a few appropriate words’. A man would be more likely to do such things than to say such things even if he were left entirely to himself, without tradition or culture, even if he were a savage or an utterly unlettered peasant. Ritualism is more natural than rationalism about these things. It is a living necessity for those who survive; sometimes almost a necessity to enable them to survive. It is almost the first gesture of awakening, by which they show that they have not also been struck by the thunderbolt. ‘Funeral ceremonies are not a tribute to the dead, but to the living.’

Christmas is a festival of joy and a national funeral is a festival of sorrow; but they both bring in this problem of the present which has always been the practice of the past. And indeed there is more connexion between the two ideas than many suppose, especially of those who are largely out of touch with the present, through being entirely out of touch with the past. For a man without history is almost in the literal sense half-witted. He is only in command of a part even of his own mind. He does not know what half his own words mean, or what half his own actions signify. And in the great human past there was a profoundly human connexion between days of mourning and days of merriment. The same words were used about both — or, what will seem to some still more strange, the words were interchanged and the phrase that seems to us appropriate to one was specially applied to the other. In ancient times a funeral had many of the elements of a feast. In ancient times a dance could have much of the gravity of a divine service. They used the word ‘banquet’ about the tragic occasion. They used the word ‘solemnity’ about the frivolous occasion. Achilles, mourning over Patroclus, summons the heroes to take part in games, as on a school holiday devoted to sports. Theseus in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, cracking jokes and watching burlesques, at his wedding feast, says; ‘A fortnight keep we this solemnity.’ And though our civilization has grown in some ways more complex and cannot express these truths with quite the same unconscious sincerity and natural tact, it is well not to forget altogether that our fathers felt this comradeship in their grief and this religion in their merriment.

The ancient world conceived that pagan gods presided over every social function and every activity of daily life; and much of the position that had been given to pagan gods was afterwards very wisely given to patron saints. But there has arisen in modern times a mood that is not so much influenced by pagan gods as by godless paganism. Its funerals are not feasts; and, in a very different sense, its feasts are funerals. The old Christian saint bade men be sorry, not as men without hope. The new pagan sage rather bids them to be merry as men without hope. The frivolity of the pessimists, of the sceptics, and the decadents has been something that connects gaiety with piety by getting rid of both of them. It cannot create any of those symbolic forms of beauty that remain permanent as ritual or even as revelry. Funeral ceremonies are a tribute not to the dead but to the living. But these men are not living; they are of the sort that would scorn equally the little pieties of the poor about mourning, even public mourning, and the traditional games and jokes of a festival like Christmas. Just as they do not understand how much life there is in the cult of the dead, so they do not understand how much truth there is in the repetition of the joke. They are not subtle enough to understand what is simple, nor have they the insight or intelligence to understand the plain and popular things.

The tamest person following tradition is a little more in the main stream of life than that. He may not be an exceptional person, but at least he understands what is meant by an exceptional occasion. He may be a little like a vegetable or a plant that only flowers or comes to life at certain regular seasons. But at least he is not like a stone that never comes to life at all. And the cheap stoic or superior person is none the less as lifeless as a stone, because he generally regards himself as a precious stone and falls into the not uncommon geological error of sup posing that he is the only pebble on the beach. Compared with him, there is something like movement in the mere mass of pebbles that are rolled to and fro by the sea.

When, therefore, we watch some popular pomp go by, especially a pomp of lamentation, let us think not only of the virtues of the dead, but of the living; and above all of that universal human virtue of veneration for the dead. Grief is a thing really popular; that fact, if we consider it, will appear very notable and impressive; and when we have understood it we may understand why the great voice that said of old upon the mountain ‘Blessed are the poor,’ added but a moment afterwards: ‘Blessed are ye that mourn.’

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