Our culture tries to ignore death and keep it quiet in a way that George Herbert would have found impossible. Not only did he lose father and mother, but in his day average life expectancy was just 35 and so much of their mind would have been on “what happens next?”. He even writes a poem addressed to Death. 'Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing, nothing but bones'. Herbert and Christ’s light reveal that life, and what is left behind, is much more than bones.
One of the famous stories handed down to me about St. Andrews church concerns Eleanor Warre. She was one of the daughters of Francis Warre, the Rector of Bemerton from 1890 to 1918 and first Chancellor of the Diocese of Salisbury. Apparently, whilst daddy was off in Europe for the summer, she decided to dig up the chancel to see if Holy Mr Herbert was really there. According to the legend she found the bones of lots of people and couldn’t determine which was which - just as humble Mr Herbert would have liked, I imagine.
I find that story hard to believe having just had to move some graves in St.Johns to allow for the extension to be built. This being the 21st century there was lots of form filling, and excessive precautions - screens to prevent people seeing, doing it at 7:00am so no-one was around, having a lime equivalent in case of dormant diseases long buried - but there was also an atmosphere of sacredness, of touching what was meant to be left undisturbed that even Ms Warre would not have failed to notice. The graveyard is so hallowed that even the soil that is dug up for the footings needs to remain within the churchyard. In very old churchyards there are so many lumps and bumps you get the feeling that it's really quite crowded down there.
Different countries treat their dead in different ways - in Europe you rent your grave for 100 years and then move out - in the Mddle East bodies don’t decompose so easily so tombs in the rock are sealed. Here the tradition is that once laid to rest, that is final. The grave space does not belong to the family but the body is given to the church, in loco parentis for God, to look after.
After several years of not being able to read our hymnbooks we’ve finally got new lighting installed in St .Andrews. The first thing we noticed was how glaringly bright it felt, and then we noticed how dirty the floor was! Sometimes it seems that light is too obvious and clumsy a metaphor for Christ - was it Luther that said “the nearer I get to the flame, the clearer my sins I see”?
Back to St.Andrews - it is very dramatic, and casts strong shadows whilst illuminating the GH stone on the wall, and the cross on the floor of the sanctuary which indicates his mortal remains are somewhere underneath. We are so used to electric lighting making winter working just like summer, but how different it must have been in the 17th century. Surely people stayed in bed longer in the morning? As beautiful as the church looks candlelit for Advent Carols, how many services did they really have when candles were their only light? It makes you wonder how bad or good was their eyesight!
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