My dear friends,
I have always been fascinated by churchyards; in particular by the inscriptions upon memorials. When I was eleven years old my brother was married at the parish church of St Mary’s, Blidworth, in Nottinghamshire. Will Scarlett, outlaw, minstrel and companion to Robin Hood is reputed to be buried there in an unmarked grave, set amidst a copse of Yew trees. In a good number of my brother’s wedding pictures I appear as the rather morose besuited little boy in the background, morbidly wandering distractedly amongst the gravestones. It remains a source of much amusement when we gather around the family photograph album.
Thirty five years on, the fascination remains; I have even toyed with the possibility of composing my own epitaph. It is not an original idea of course, in recent times the comedian Spike Milligan caused chaos by an off-the-cuff suggestion that his own memorial should bear the words, ‘I told you I was ill.’ After much anguished debate, the diocese of Chichester and Milligan’s family eventually reached a compromise: the controversial inscription would be permitted in Gaelic, as Milligan was an Irish national. It might be me, but personally I don’t think ‘Duirt me leat go raibh me breoite’ has quite the same comic impact on the casual observer!
I have recently come across the more conventional memorial of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), writer of poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, as well as his own epitaph. The inscription on his gravestone in Highgate begins rather brutally, ‘Beneath this sod, a Poet lies’. He goes on to ask the onlooker for their prayers, that ‘He who many a year, with toil of breath, found Death in Life; May here find Life in Death.’
Coleridge’s ‘death in life’ refers to a crushing sense of failure: a collapsed marriage; the demon of addiction; his unfulfilled potential - we shall never know how great a poet he might have been if opium had not taken its toll.
Whilst I wholeheartedly approve of the humour of Spike Milligan, I find a deeper resonance in the sentiments of Coleridge. After many years of spiritual turmoil and doubt Coleridge arrived at a deeply held Anglican faith. Like him, all of us have some experience of finding ‘death in life’. Our journey through Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and its reminder of our frailties and failures: ‘Remember that you are but dust, from dust you came and to dust you shall return’ intoned over us with the imposition of palm ash upon our foreheads.
However, that was then. Lent will soon end, and Holy Week will retell the story
of our redemption. Christ dies for sin and is raised to life, and like Coleridge
we find joy and great hope in the Easter Faith. A faith that moves us from the
experience of ‘death in life’ to the joyful hope that Coleridge termed ‘life in
death’! May the power of Christ’s resurrection lift our eyes from earthbound
failures, and fill us and empower us with the Easter hope.
Happy Easter to you all!
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