A Procession to Death: George Herbert’s “Mortification”

Through Lent With George Herbert
Friday After The Fourth Sunday Of Lent

President John F. Kennedy

The funeral procession of John F. Kennedy crosses the Potomac River on Memorial Bridge, on the way to Arlington Cemetery, November 25, 1963.

Mortification.

How soon doth man decay !
When clothes are taken from a chest of sweets
To swaddle infants, whose young breath
Scarce knows the way ;
Those clouts are little winding sheets,
Which do consign and send them unto death.

When boys go first to bed,
They step into their voluntary graves ;
Sleep binds them fast; only their breath
Makes them not dead.
Successive nights, like rolling waves,
Convey them quickly, who are bound for death.

When youth is frank and free,
And calls for music, while his veins do swell,
All day exchanging mirth and breath
In company ;
That music summons to the knell,
Which shall befriend him at the hour of death.

When man grows staid and wise,
Getting a house and home, where he may move
Within the circle of his breath,
Schooling his eyes ;
That dumb enclosure maketh love
Unto the coffin, that attends his death.

When age grows low and weak,
Marking his grave, and thawing ev’ry year,
Till all do melt, and drown his breath
When he would speak ;
A chair or litter shows the bier,
Which shall convey him to the house of death.

Man, ere he is aware,
Hath put together a solemnity,
And drest his hearse, while he has breath
As yet to spare.
Yet Lord, instruct us so to die
That all these dyings may be life in death.

I just presided over a funeral for a seventy-one year old man, my first such service here in Crete. As a priest in the Diocese in Europe, the part of the Church of England that is outside the British Isles, I used the resources of Common Worship, although I confess that for the prayers I did mostly use those on pages of the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada. One of the prayers I did use from Common Worship was this one:

We have but a short time to live.
Like a flower we blossom and then wither;
like a shadow we flee and never stay.
In the midst of life we are in death;
to whom can we turn for help,
but to you, Lord, who are justly angered by our sins?
Yet, Lord God most holy, Lord most mighty,
O holy and most merciful Saviour,
deliver us from the bitter pain of eternal death.
Lord, you know the secrets of our hearts;
hear our prayer, O God most mighty;
spare us, most worthy judge eternal;
at our last hour let us not fall from you,
O holy and merciful Saviour.

This is a modern adaptation of a well known prayer from The Book of Common PPrayer, which is itself a poetic translation from a 14th century Latin chant:

Media vita in morte sumus

From the Wikipedia article “Media vita in morte sumus

Herbert seems to echo this prayer in the last line of the poem: “That all these dyings may be life in death.” The first five  stanzas are a reflection on the presence of death in life in five stages of life, and the sixth and final stanza sums up the meaning that all life is a formal procession whose destination is death. The five stages of life are similar to that of Shakespeare’s seven from As You Like It. It is not clear if Herbert would have been familiar with the monologue, but the theme was common enough.

Mortification is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary,

In religious use: the action of mortifying the body, its appetites, etc.; the subjection or bringing under control of one’s appetites and passions by the practice of austere living, esp. by the self-infliction or voluntary toleration of bodily pain or discomfort.

The reminders of death that Herbert notes are potential means of mortification. Thus,

  • In infancy the perfumed swaddling cloths (a.k.a. “clouts”) are like burial cloths;
  • For boys the sheets of a bed and their sleeping resembles, again, burial cloths and the immobility of a dead body;
  • The music of youth is a reminder of the death-knell that tolls out the years of life of the deceased;
  • The walls of a home and garden resemble the coffin which will enclose him; and
  • the chair or litter on which an old man is carried is likened to the bier that carries the corpse.

As Arnold Stein notes in his extensive study of the poem in George Herbert’s Lyrics (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968, pp. 156-170) the theme of breath is introduced in the third line of first stanza, it rhymes with death in the sixth line, and these two words repeat in this pattern throughout the poem. Breath is the opposite of death. Herbert’s use of “breath” in the third line is extremely clever, because the reader is not given the opportunity to breath, but must read on to the fourth line in order to complete the sense of the sentence.

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The Dance of Death, Holy Trinity Church in Hrastovlje, Slovenia

We are, in much of North America and Europe, a death denying society. Certainly we extol youth as a precondition for beauty, and we fight the circumstances of age with hair dyes, make-up, form-shifting clothes, rejuvenating exercise, miracle anti-aging foods, and plastic surgery. Whereas here in Greece funerals are community events, in most of the western world it is a private thing, becoming public only when the person is rich or famous. In much of the United States when someone dies their heirs can just go online and arrange for someone to pick up a dead body and take it away for cremation. Two weeks later a FedEx box arrives at one’s home with the ashes. Movements such as The Order of the Good Death, as well as Death Cafés are working to call all of this denial into question, supplementing what traditional religions have always done.

The Christian Church begins Lent by reminding people of their mortality by placing ashes on their foreheads. We complete Lent and pass to Easter, after remembering the death and burial of Jesus of Nazareth on the previous two days. On the third day we remember Jesus’s resurrection, and recall John’s words that what he is we shall become. But to get there, short of the Last Trumpet and Christ’s appearing, we must live and we must die. I am both living and dying, breathing and pausing between breath. We process through life, but all around us are reminders of our death. And again the question comes back to us – who do we live this gift of life?

 

 

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
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