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Book of Scottish Story
The Elder's Funeral


By Professor Wilson

How beautiful to the eye and to the heart rise up, in a pastoral region, the green silent hills from the dissolving snow-wreaths that yet linger at their feet! A few warm sunny days, and a few breezy and melting nights, have seemed to create the sweet season of spring out of the winter's bleakest desolation. We can scarcely believe that such brightness of verdure could have been shrouded in the snow, blending itself, as it now does, so vividly with the deep blue of heaven. With the revival of nature our own souls feel restored. Happiness becomes milder, meeker, and richer in pensive thought; while sorrow catches a faint tinge of joy, and reposes itself on the quietness of earth’s opening breast. Then is youth rejoicing—manhood sedate—and old age esigned. The child shakes his golden curls in his glee; he of riper life hails the coming year with temperate exultation; and the eye that has been touched with dimness, in the general spirit of delight, forgets or fears not the shadows of the grave.

On such a vernal day as this did we, who had visited the Elder on his death-bed, walk together to his house in the Hazel Glen, to accompany his body to the place of burial. On the night he died, it seemed to be the dead of winter. On the day he was buried, it seemed to be the birth of spring. The old pastor and I were alone for awhile as we pursued our path up the glen, by the banks of the little burn. It had cleared itself off from the melted snow, and ran so pellucid a race that every stone and pebble was visible in its yellow channel. The willows, the alders, and the birches, the fairest mid the earliest of our native hill-trees, seemed almost tinged with a verdant light, as if they were budding; and beneath them, here and there peeped out, as in the pleasure of new existence, the primrose lonely, or in little families and flocks. The bee had not yet ventured to leave his cell, yet the flowers reminded one of his murmur. A few insects were dancing in the air, and here and there some little moorland bird, touched at the heart with the warm and sunny change, was piping his love-sweet song among the braes. It was just such a day as a grave meditative man, like him we were about to inter, would have chosen to walk over his farm in religious contentment with his lot. That was the thought that entered the pastor’s heart, as we paused to enjoy one brighter gleam of the sun in a little meadow-field of peculiar beauty.

"This is the last day of the week, and on that day often did the Elder walk through this little happy kingdom of his own, with some of his grand-children beside and around him, and often his Bible in his hand. It is, you feel, a solitary place,—all the vale is one seclusion—and often have its quiet bounds been a place of undisturbed meditation and prayer."

We now came in sight of the cottage, and beyond it the termination of the glen. There the high hills came sloping gently down ; and a little waterfall, in the distance, gave animation to a scene of perfect repose. We were now joined by various small parties coming to the funeral through openings among the hills ; all sedate, but none sad, and every greeting was that of kindness and peace. The Elder had died full of years; and there was no need why any out of his household should weep. A long life of piety had been beautifully closed; and, therefore, we were all going to commit the body to the earth, assured, as far as human beings may be so assured, that the soul was in heaven. As the party increased on our approach to the house, there was even cheerfulness among us. We spoke of the early and bright promise of spring—of the sorrows and joys of other families—of marriages and births—of the new schoolmaster—of to-morrow’s Sabbath. There was no topic of which, on any common occasion, it might have been fitting to speak. that did not now perhaps occupy, for a few moments, some one or other of the group, till we found ourselves ascending the greensward before the cottage, and stood below the bare branches of the sycamores. Then we were all silent, and, after a short pause, reverently entered into the house of death.

At the door the son received us with a calm, humble, and untroubled face; and in his manner towards the old minister, there was something that could not be misunderstood, expressing penitence, gratitude, and resignation. We all sat down in the large kitchen; and the son decently received each person at the door, and showed him to his place. There were some old gray heads, more becoming gray, and many bright in manhood and youth. But the same solemn hush was over them all, and they sat all bound together in one uniting and assimilating spirit of devotion and faith. Wine and bread were to be sent round; but the son looked to the old minister, who rose, lifted up his withered hand, and began a blessing and a prayer.

There was so much composure and stillness in the old man’s attitude, and something so affecting in his voice, tremulous and broken, not in grief but age, that no sooner had he begun to pray, than every heart and every breath at once were hushed. All stood motionless, nor could me eye abstain from that placid and patriarchal countenance, with its closed eyes, and long silvery hair. There was nothing sad in his words, but they were all humble and solemn, and at times even joyful in the kindling spirit of piety and faith. He spoke of the dead man’s goodness as imperfect in the eyes of his Great judge, but such as, we were taught, might lead, through intercession, to the kingdom of heaven. Might the blessing of God, he prayed, which had so long rested on the head now coffined, not forsake that of him who was now to be the father of this house. There was more—more joy, we were told, in heaven, over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance. Fervently, too, and tenderly, did the old man pray for her, in her silent chamber, who had lost so kind a parent, and for all the little children round her knees. Nor did he end his prayer without some allusion to his own gray hairs, and to the approaching day on which many then present would attend his burial.

Just as he ceased to speak, one solitary stifled sob was heard, and all eyes turned kindly round to a little boy who was standing by the side of the Elder’s son. Restored once more to his own father’s love, his heart had been insensibly filled with peace since the old man’s death. The returning tenderness of the living came in place of that of the dead, and the child yearned towards his father now with a stronger affection, relieved at last from all his fear. He had been suffered to sit an hour each day beside the bed on which his grandfather lay shrouded, and he had got reconciled to the cold but silent and happy looks of death. His mother and his Bible told him to obey God without repining in all things; and the child did so with perfect simplicity. One sob had found its way at the close of that pathetic prayer; but the tears that bathed his glistening cheeks were far different from those that, on the day and night of his grand-father’s decease, had burst from the agony of a breaking heart. The old minister laid his hand silently upon his golden head ; there was a momentary murmur of kindness and pity over the room; the child was pacified, and again all was repose and peace.

A sober voice said all was ready, and the son and the minister led the way reverently out into the open air. The bier stood before the door, and was lifted slowly up with its sable pall. Silently each mourner took his place. The sun was shining pleasantly, and a gentle breeze, passing through the sycamore, shook down the glittering raindrops upon the funeral velvet. The small procession, with an instinctive spirit, began to move along; and as l cast up my eyes to take a farewell look of that beautiful dwelling, now finally left by him who so long had blessed it, I saw at the half-open lattice of the little bedroom window above, the pale weeping face of that stainless matron, who was taking her last passionate farewell of the mortal remains of her father, now slowly receding from her to the quiet field of graves.

We proceeded along the edges of the hills, and along the meadow-fields, crossed the old wooden bridge over the burn, now widening in its course to the plain, and in an hour of pensive silence, or pleasant talk, we found ourselves entering, in a closer body, the little gateway of the churchyard. To the tolling of the bell we moved across the green mounds, and arranged ourselves, according to the plan and order which our feelings suggested, around the bier and its natural supporters. There was no delay. In a few minutes the Elder was laid among the mould of his forefathers, in their long-ago chosen spot of rest. One by one the people dropped away, and none were left by the new made grave but the son and his little boy, the pastor and myself. As yet nothing was said, and in that pause I looked around me, over the sweet burial-ground.

Each tombstone and grave over which I had often walked in boyhood arose in my memory, as I looked steadfastly upon their long-forgotten inscriptions; and many had then been erected. The whole character of the place was still simple and unostentatious, but from the abodes of the dead I could see that there had been an improvement in the condition of the living. There was a taste visible in their decorations, not without much of native feeling, and occasionally something even of native grace. If there was any other inscription than the name and age of the poor inhabitants below, it was, in general, some short text of Scripture; for it is most pleasant and soothing to the pious mind, when bereaved of friends, to commemorate them on earth by some touching expression taken from that Book which reveals to them a life in heaven.

There is a sort of gradation, a scale of forgetfulness, in a country churchyard, where the processes of nature are suffered to go on over the green place of burial, that is extremely affecting in the contemplation, The soul goes from the grave just covered up, to that which seems scarcely joined together, on and on to those folded and bound by the undisturbed verdure of many, many unremembered years. It then glides at last into nooks and corners where the ground seems perfectly calm and wave-less, utter oblivion having smoothed the earth over the long mouldered bones. Tombstones, on which the inscriptions are hidden in green obliteration, or that are mouldering, or falling to a side, are close to others which last week were brushed by the chisel ;—constant renovation and constant decay—vain attempts to adhere to memory—and oblivion, now baffled and now triumphant, smiling among all the memorials of human affection, as they keep continually crumbling away into the world of undistinguishable dust and ashes.

The churchyard, to the inhabitants of a rural parish, is the place to which, as they grow older, all their thoughts and feelings turn. The young take a look of it every Sabbath day, not always perhaps a careless look, but carry away from it, unconsciously, many salutary impressions. What is more pleasant than the meeting of a rural congregation in the churchyard before the minister appears? What is there to shudder at in lying down, sooner or later, in such a peaceful and sacred place, to be spoken of frequently on Sabbath among the groups of which we used to be one, and our low burial-spot to be visited, at such times, as long as there remains on earth any one to whom our face was dear? To those who mix in the strife and dangers of the world, the place is felt to be uncertain wherein they may finally lie at rest. The soldier—the sailor—the traveller—can only see some dim grave dug for him when he dies, in some place obscure, nameless, and unfixed to the imagination. All he feels is, that his burial will be—on earth——or in the sea.

But the peaceful dwellers who cultivate their paternal acres, or tilling at least at the same small spot of soil, shift only from a cottage on the hillside to one on the plain, still within the bounds of one quiet parish ; they look to lay their bones at last in the burial—place of the kirk in which they were baptised, and with them it almost literally is but a step from the cradle to the grave.

Such were the thoughts that calmly followed each other in my reverie, as I stood beside the Elder’s grave, and the trodden grass was again lifting up its blades from the pressure of many feet, now all, but a few, departed. What a simple burial had it been ! Dust was consigned to dust—no more. Bare, naked, simple, and austere is in Scotland the service of the grave. It is left to the soul itself to consecrate, by its passion, the mould over which tears, but no words, are poured. Surely there is a beauty in this; for the heart is left unto its own sorrow-according as it is a friend—a brother—a parent—or a child, that is covered up from our eyes. Yet call not other rites, however different from this, less beautiful or pathetic. For willingly does the soul connect its grief with any consecrated ritual of the dead. Sound or silence—music—hymns —psalms—sable garments, or raiment white as snow—all become holy symbols of the soul’s affection ; nor is it for any man to say which is the most natural, which is the best, of the thousand shows and expressions, and testimonies of sorrow, resignation, and love, by which mortal beings would seek to express their souls when one of their brethren has returned to his parent dust.

My mind was recalled from all these sad, yet not unpleasant fancies, by a deep groan, and I beheld the Elder’s son fling himself down upon the grave and kiss it passionately, imploring pardon from God. "I distressed my father's heart in his old age—l repented—and received thy forgiveness even on thy death-bed ! But how may l be assured that God will forgive me for having so sinned against my old, gray-headed father, when his limbs were weak and his eye-sight dim!" The old minister stood at the head of the grave without speaking a word, with his solemn and pitiful eyes fixed upon the prostrate and contrite man. His sin had been great, and tears that till now had, on this day at least, been compressed within his heart by the presence of so many of his friends, now poured down upon the sod as if they would have found their way to the very body of his father. Neither of us offered to lift him up, for we felt awed by the rueful passion of his love, his remorse, and his penitence; and nature, we felt, ought to have her way. "Fear not, my son” at length said the old man, in a gentle voice—"fear not, my son, but that you are already forgiven. Dost thou not feel pardon within thy contrite spirit?” He rose up from his knees with a faint smile, while the minister, with his white head yet uncovered, held his hands over him as in benediction; and that beautiful and loving child, who had been standing in a fit of weeping terror at his father’s agony, now came up to him and kissed his cheek—holding in his little hand a few faded primroses which he had unconsciously gathered together as they lay on the turf of his grandfather’s grave.


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