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The Dead and the Living

The last was indeed in essence a small thing, but was running to such a
great length it had to be ended before my selected best inscriptions
were used up, also before the true answer to the question: "Why, if
inscriptions do not greatly interest me, do I haunt churchyards?" was
given. Let me give it now: it will serve as a suitable conclusion to
what has already been said on the subject in this and in a former book.

When we have sat too long in a close, hot, brilliantly-lighted, over-
crowded room, a sense of unutterable relief is experienced on coming
forth into the pure, fresh, cold night and filling our lungs with air
uncontaminated with the poisonous gases discharged from other lungs. An
analogous sense of immense relief, of escape from confinement and
joyful liberation, is experienced mentally when after long weeks or
months in London I repair to a rustic village. Yet, like the person who
has in his excitement been inhaling poison into his system for long
hours, I am not conscious of the restraint at the time. Not consciously
conscious. The mind was too exclusively occupied with itself--its own
mind affairs. The cage was only recognised as a cage, an unsuitable
habitation, when I was out of it. An example, this, of the eternal
disharmony between the busy mind and nature--or Mother Nature, let us
say; the more the mind is concentrated on its own business the blinder
we are to the signals of disapproval on her kindly countenance, the
deafer to her warning whispers in our ear.

The sense of relief is chiefly due to the artificiality of the
conditions of London or town life, and no doubt varies greatly in
strength in town and country-bred persons; in me it is so strong that
on first coming out to where there are woods and fields and hedges, I
am almost moved to tears.

We have recently heard the story of the little East-end boy on his
holiday in a quiet country spot, who exclaimed: "How full of sound the
country is! Now in London we can't hear the sound because of the
noises." And as with sound--the rural sounds that are familiar from of
old and find an echo in us--so with everything: we do not hear nor see
nor smell nor feel the earth, which he is, physically and mentally, in
such per-period, the years that run to millions, that it has "entered
the soul"; an environment with which he is physically and mentally, in
such perfect harmony that it is like an extension of himself into the
surrounding space. Sky and cloud and wind and rain, and rock and soil
and water, and flocks and herds and all wild things, with trees and
flowers--everywhere grass and everlasting verdure--it is all part of
men, and is me, as I sometimes feel in a mystic mood, even as a
religious man in a like mood feels that he is in a heavenly place and
is a native there, one with it.

Another less obvious cause of my feeling is that the love of our kind
cannot exist, or at all events not unmixed with contempt and various
other unpleasant ingredients, in people who live and have their being
amidst thousands and millions of their fellow-creatures herded
together. The great thoroughfares in which we walk are peopled with an
endless procession, an innumerable multitude; we hardly see and do not
look at or notice them, knowing beforehand that we do not know and
never will know them to our dying day; from long use we have almost
ceased to regard them as fellow-beings.

I recall here a tradition of the Incas, which tells that in the
beginning a benevolent god created men on the slopes of the Andes, and
that after a time another god, who was at enmity with the first,
spitefully transformed them into insects. Here we have a contrary
effect--it is the insects which have been transformed; the millions of
wood-ants, let us say, inhabiting an old and exceedingly populous nest
have been transformed into men, but in form only; mentally they are
still ants, all silently, everlastingly hurrying by, absorbed in their
ant-business. You can almost smell the formic acid. Walking in the
street, one of the swarming multitude, you are in but not of it. You
are only one with the others in appearance; in mind you are as unlike
them as a man is unlike an ant, and the love and sympathy you feel
towards them is about equal to that which you experience when looking
down on the swarm in a wood-ants' nest.

Undoubtedly when I am in the crowd, poisoned by contact with the crowd-
mind--the formic acid of the spirits--I am not actually or keenly
conscious of the great gulf between me and the others, but, as in the
former case, the sense of relief is experienced here too in escaping
from it. The people of the small rustic community have not been de-
humanised. I am a stranger, and they do not meet me with blank faces
and pass on in ant-like silence. So great is the revulsion that I look
on them as of my kin, and am so delighted to be with them again after
an absence of centuries, that I want to embrace and kiss them all. I am
one of them, a villager with the village mind, and no wish for any
other.

This mind or heart includes the dead as well as the living, and the
church and churchyard is the central spot and half-way house or
camping-ground between this and the other world, where dead and living
meet and hold communion--a fact that is unknown to or ignored by
persons of the "better class," the parish priest or vicar sometimes
included.

And as I have for the nonce taken on the village mind, I am as much
interested in my incorporeal, invisible neighbours as in those I see
and am accustomed to meet and converse with every day. They are here in
the churchyard, and I am pleased to be with them. Even when I sit, as I
sometimes do of an evening, on a flat tomb with a group of laughing
children round me, some not yet tired of play, climbing up to my side
only to jump down again, I am not oblivious of their presence. They are
there, and are glad to see the children playing among the tombs where
they too had their games a century ago. I notice that the village woman
passing through the ground pauses a minute with her eyes resting on a
certain spot; even the tired labourer, coming home to his tea, will let
his eyes dwell on some green mound, to see sitting or standing there
someone who in life was very near and dear to him, with whom he is now
exchanging greetings. But the old worn-out labourer, who happily has
not gone to end his days in captivity in the bitter Home of the Poor--
he, sitting on a tomb to rest and basking in the sunshine, has a whole
crowd of the vanished villagers about him.

It is useless their telling us that when we die we are instantly judged
and packed straight off to some region where we are destined to spend
an eternity. We know better. Nature, our own hearts, have taught us
differently. Furthermore, we have heard of the resurrection--that the
dead will rise again at the last day; and with all our willingness to
believe what our masters tell us, we know that even a dead man can't be
in two places at the same time. Our dead are here where we laid them;
sleeping, no doubt, but not so soundly sleeping, we imagine, as not to
see and hear us when we visit and speak to them. And being villagers
still though dead, they like to see us often, whenever we have a few
spare minutes to call round and exchange a few words with them.

This extremely beautiful--and in its effect beneficial--feeling and
belief, or instinct, or superstition if the superior inhabitants of the
wood-ants' nest, who throw their dead away and think no more about
them, will have it so--is a sweet and pleasant thing in the village
life and a consolation to those who are lonely. Let me in conclusion
give an instance.

The churchyard I like best is situated in the village itself, and is in
use both for the dead and living, and the playground of the little
ones, but some time ago I by chance discovered one which was over half
a mile from the village; an ancient beautiful church and churchyard
which so greatly attracted me that in my rambles in that part I often
went a mile or two out of my way just for the pleasure of spending an
hour or two in that quiet sacred spot. It was in a wooded district in
Hampshire, and there were old oak woods all round the church, with no
other building in sight and seldom a sound of human life. There was an
old road outside the gate, but few used it. The tombs and stones were
many and nearly covered with moss and lichen and half-draped in
creeping ivy. There, sitting on a tomb, I would watch the small
woodland birds that made it their haunt, and listen to the delicate
little warbling or tinkling notes, and admire the two ancient
picturesque yew trees growing there.

One day, while sitting on a tomb, I saw a woman coming from the village
with a heavy basket on her head, and on coming to the gate she turned
in, and setting the basket down walked to a spot about thirty yards
from where I sat, and at that spot she remained for several minutes
standing motionless, her eyes cast down, her arms hanging at her sides.
A cottage woman in a faded cotton gown, of a common Hampshire type,
flat-chested, a rather long oval face, almost colourless, and black
dusty hair. She looked thirty-five, but was probably less than thirty,
as women of their class age early in this county and get the toil-worn,
tired face when still young.

By-and-by I went over to her and asked her if she was visiting some of
her people at that spot. Yes, she returned; her mother and father were
buried under the two grass mounds at her feet; and then quite
cheerfully she went on to tell me all about them--how all their other
children had gone away to live at a distance from home, and she was
left alone with them when they grew old and infirm. They were natives
of the village, and after they were both dead, five years ago, she got
a place at a farm about a mile up the road. There she had been ever
since, but fortunately she had to come to the village every week, and
always on her way back she spent a quarter or half an hour with her
parents. She was sure they looked for that weekly visit from her, as
they had no other relation in the place now, and that they liked to
hear all the village news from her.

All this and more she told me in the most open way. Like Wordsworth's
"simple child," what could she know of death? But being a villager
myself I was better informed than Wordsworth, and didn't enter on a
ponderous argument to prove to her that when people die they die, and
being dead, they can't be alive--therefore to pay them a weekly visit
and tell them all the news was a mere waste of time and breath.

W. H. Hudson