Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Meditations on the Dead: Mather vs. Story

Today, I've been mulling over Cotton Mather's A Christian Funeral (1713), specifically as it contrasts with the use of cemeteries envisioned by Joseph Story in his dedication address at Mount Auburn (1831).

Mather and Story agree on one thing: the living should learn from the dead.

Let the Dead Person in the Coffin, become a Lively Teacher unto us: their Death, a Lively Sermon unto us. When we see the Sleep of Death upon one of our Acquaintance, let it Awaken in us, many Pertinent Meditation.
Our Cemeteries rightly selected, and properly arranged, may be made subservient to some of the highest purposes of religion and human duty. They may preach lessons, to which none may refuse to listen, and which all, that live, must hear. Truths may there be felt and taught in the silence of our own meditations, more persuasive, and more enduring, than ever flowed from human lips. The grave hath a voice of eloquence, nay, of superhuman eloquence . . .
Yet, despite some superficial similarities, Mather and Story actually have very different views on how the living should relate to the dead. Mather places the living in close proximity to "the Dead Body" and emphasizes feelings of abject humility. He deems four meditations most appropriate for funerals:
  • "The Frailty of Dying Man; and Frail Mans Tendency to Death"
  • "The Certainty, the Speediness, and for ought we can foretell, the Suddenness of our own Death"
  • "The Compassion of God, in Sparing of us, when Death has had a Commission to fall upon others"
  • "The Insignificancy of all Worldly Satisfactions, unto a man that must Leave the World"
Mather may hear "a loud Voice from the Hearse," but it says, "Friend, Thou must quickly come to this!"

Story hears a voice, but it's saying something very different:
As we sit down by their graves, we seem to hear the tones of their affection, whispering in our ears. We listen to the voice of their wisdom, speaking in the depths of our souls. We shed our tears, but they are no longer the burning tears of agony. They relieve our drooping spirits and come no longer over us with a deathly faintness. We return to the world, and we feel ourselves purer, and better, and wiser, from this communion with the dead.
Someone coming from one of Mather's funerals might feel many things, but not comfort. Mather's funeral lesson is that man is vulnerable and wretched. Story leaves the grave feeling strong and uplifted.

Mather's "voice" is purely metaphorical, but I'm not sure Story's actually is. Or even if his is — he "seems to hear" — the seeds of spiritualism are present in the rural cemetery movement's embrace of an immediate, mystical connection with the dead.

Mather does allow that mourners may learn a "Lesson of Goodness or Wisdom" by remembering the life of an exemplary Christian and "send[ing] up our secret wishes to Heaven, Lord, Help me to do so too!" But this is very different from Story's immediate connection with the dead. In Mather's thinking, the dead body is an object of meditation, an aid to remembrance, and an inspiration for prayer. For Story, the body is not particularly important, but the setting of the grave is crucial for establishing an immediate connection with the dead. In the former case, the dead person humbles the living and brings him crawling to God. In the latter, the dead person's spirit strengthens the living, and I can't quite see where God fits in at all.

1 comment:

Roy said...

There's a parallel to this in the music world. The traditional Requiem mass is all about final judgment; they can be powerful and beautiful pieces of music (Verdi, Mozart), but in the end they're intended as a warning to the funeral attendees to clean up their act.

Then along comes Johannes Brahms and his German Requiem; he leaves the traditional order of the mass and concentrates on verses that give comfort. The climax of the piece is the 6th movement, and the linchpin of that movement is Paul's sermon on death from 1 Corinthians 15:51 - 55:

Listen closely, I'll tell you a secret: we won't all die, but we'll all be transformed - in a flash, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will rise up untouched by death, and we'll be transformed. Because this dying body must put on the undying, and this mortal must put on immortality. And when the dying puts on the undying, and the mortal puts on the immortal, then what was written will occur:
"Death is swallowed up in victory."
"Where, O Death, is your sting?
Where, O grave, is your victory?"

Which is then followed by the last, musically serene movement, Selig sind...:

Blessed are dead
which die in the Lord
from henceforth:
yea, saith the Spirit,
that they rest from their labors;
and their works do follow them.

Brahms's take on the Requiem sounds much like Story's views on cemeteries.