IMMORTALITY is a word that has a fine ring to it. It rolls round
the tongue like a song. Once upon a time, all the talk was of it.
When I was a boy, poor folk who could not afford gravestones made
do with clasped china hands, and unfading china flowers under a
glass dome in the churchyard.
When an Italian family included a photograph, we didn't know
where to look. It was so intimate, so obviously un-immortal. To
look into the usually youthful face could be upsetting - and it was
no relation of ours. Instead of reassuring us of life everlasting,
it seemed to speak frankly of decay. For, in no time, the white
hands stained, and the white petals became brown, and the entire
memorial was obviously due for the bumby-heap.
Does the Churchyards Handbook allow for "Immortelles"?
Has it even heard of them? They belong to the glass-domes era, when
clocks ticked away beneath shades, and artificial flowers were
believed to be the immortal answer to a wreath. In Ancient Greece,
the victor's laurels hung from his tombstone until its leaves
dropped, one by one, to the earth. No one took its tattered honours
My favourite immortality poem is William Cory's "Heraclitus".
What lasts about our lives is the talk of those who lived it with
us. When St John was very old, the young would plead with him to
tell them how Jesus spoke, and what he looked like. Only to be
answered with, "Little children, love one another." Which must have
But, in "Heraclitus", death cannot silence a once heard
They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to
I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
Christ's friends pestered him about the afterlife. Might her
sons sit on either side of him in heaven, a mother asked. And there
was the inevitable question about remarriage, and which marriage
stood in paradise.
All in all, Christ's message is "Live this life" for all you are
worth. Don't look back, and don't look forward. Live today. Live it
in its entirety. Family and friends, although their bones may be as
white as porcelain hands, remain warm flesh and blood within us. As
for their voices, who can silence these?
And, as for Jean's horses on the hill, why do their muzzles
touch? Why do they stand motionless by the hour? Haven't they
anything to do? The answer is no. For the first time in centuries,
horses never do a thing - and these on a farm! On a Sunday morning,
en route to church, you might meet one carrying a girl -
never a boy - or standing still as a glittering pack of cyclists
Now and then I dig up a horseshoe lost during ploughing, and
hang it on the fence. And, talking of pleasant voices, I think I
hear horses swigging at the pond in the mid-afternoon, when the
day's work is done. Huge, grateful gulps. The horseman standing by.
For horses came before humans then. Precedence on earth, precedence
in heaven. And men and beasts in conversation. And toil and