July 1991

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A New Home: Who'll Follow

Life in the Clearings


Caroline M. Kirkland

First published in 1839
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Chapter 44

Seth Mallory's Funeral

So soon and so soundly did we rest after a weary day, that when we were awakened by a loud hammering, we supposed the night was gone, and the old carpenter arisen to his daily labor. He had a candle however, and I lay idly watching his movements, and noting the various operations of planing and shaping, till I became aware that his business was none other than the framing of a last receptacle for one of the tenants of the narrow house. I now remembered too, that it was Sunday morning.

"Are you really making a coffin?" I said, as if such a work could be strange anywhere.

"Surely I am," said the old man, "and for a good neighbor to."

"For whom, pray?"

"Seth Mallory, you know,—you saw him in the evening,—he was the man that got hurt yesterday."

"Mallory! he is dead then! and so soon—"

"No! I believe he wa'n't quite gone when they came and brought me the measure. You know they'll want to bury him pretty soon 'cause the weather's so warm."

The idea nearly curdled my blood. A coffin for the still living husband and father! My thoughts recurred to that agonized countenance, and its look of manly care and love for the dear one he was leaving.

"Is it possible his body was measured for the grave while he was yet alive?"

"Oh, he was past knowing anything, poor fellow, and they got his woman out of the room for a few minutes. You know, ma'am, such things must be done, and the sooner the better," said the old man as he stooped over his work.

He himself had nearly reached the limit of human life, and the few scattered hairs which remained on his temples shone like silver in the light of the one dim candle; yet he wrought away cheerily at the strong man's coffin, whistling occasionally to himself as the ghastly object assumed the proper shape. He might have personified Death as he fashioned this emblem of mortality, but it would have been Death in a mild and kind form. And is not this Death's usual form? and why do we ever picture him otherwise?

As much of the night was still to come, I tried to turn away and forget the scene and its associations, but it would not be. My eyes were fascinated to the spot, and I lost not a step of the process. A white lining was tacked to the sides, the cover was shaped, and smoothed, and fitted and screwed home; and to my excited mind, the body, still warm with scarce departed life, was pressed within these dark and narrow bounds. Why are we trained from infancy to such gloomy and terrifying views of all that belongs to this universal and inevitable change?

Day dawned before the work was finished, and the old man, carefully extinguishing his candle and setting open the door, put the last touches to it by the cold gray light of morning. He stained the whitewood with some reddish composition, and then, after turning it in every direction and surveying it with a look of professional complacency, set it up against the outside of the house to dry in the beams of the rising sun.

We were at breakfast when two young men came for the coffin.

"What time did he die?" asked the old man.

"He breathed till about midnight, but he never spoke after dark."

"Ay!" said the old lady, "I thought he would die about the turn of the tide. When do they bury him?"

"This afternoon, after meeting."

This strange custom obtains here, almost universally. A dead body is seldom kept in the house more than one night, and sometimes not even one. More especially if an opportunity occurs to bury the dead on Sunday is the last rite hastened; since the presence of a minister of religion, and a day of leisure and of best clothes, are all convenient. Such haste seems more excusable under such circumstances, when we consider the condition and habits of the country, but there are cases where it looks like an indecent or superstitious haste to get rid of a painful object. The superstitious feeling is not, perhaps, very common; but there are some who are, as they say, "afraid" of the bodies of their nearest friends. This is generally found, if at all, in young people; and it arises probably from their having been bred in neighborhoods so far scattered that deaths are very infrequent, and so came seldom under their notice. I have seen a young woman who did not dare to approach the corpse of her husband unless somebody went with her and remained close at her side.

The meeting of that day was held in a large barn at some miles' distance. It was a quarterly meeting of one of the sects most numerous in this country, and great numbers attended from every direction. The central part or "bay" of the barn was filled with seats of rough boards, and a long seat for the preachers was enclosed after the same style. The place was crowded to such a degree, that even after many men and boys had perched themselves on beams and other out of the way places, there were still numbers who remained in their waggons, drawn up as near as might be, so as to be able to hear all that was said. And this was not difficult, for in most cases the speakers, who were seven in number, exerted their lungs to a degree that I had seldom heard equalled.

In spite of many unpleasant circumstances naturally inseparable from a gathering of this kind, the scene was a very impressive one. The greatest attention prevailed, and there was an air of reverence and devotion which is not always the attendant on the long-drawn aisle and the solemn organ. The speakers adverted more than once to the circumstances of our Saviour's birth; and indeed nothing could be more natural than the connexion which brought that humble yet glorious scene to mind. It was needless then to warn us against despising our place of meeting. The idea had already consecrated it to purposes of worship.

The preachers all spoke in turn, but of course each briefly. Prayer and singing came between these short sermons, the singing seeming spontaneous, as no hymns were given out. One of the ministers would begin singing without any previous notice, and as if taking it for granted that everybody would be able to join, as indeed many did, forming a choral swell of wild and solemn melody. The sacrament followed, and it was adminstered and received with much appearance of earnest devotion. Ere yet the holy rite was finished, the body of the unfortunate Mallory, and with it his weeping wife and her bereaved children, were all in the midst before we were aware. The coffin was placed on trestles before the preacher's desk, and after the communion, one of the ministers, one who had been long a neighbor of the deceased, pronounced a funeral sermon—unpremeditated of course,—but who could lack most touching topics of instruction on such an occasion as this?

Funeral hymns were now sung, and prayers offered for the afflicted family; and then the whole multitude followed the corpse in solemn procession to the burial-place. This was a sweet, lonely spot, enclosed, even in the heart of the wilderness, with pious care. There were many tall trees left standing, and beneath them a few graves marked only by a piece of wood at the head and feet. In silence was the dust committed to its kindred dust,—in silence, if we except many a sob,—and when all was done, a venerable old man, in the name of the family, thanked friends and neighbors for their aid and sympathy, and with a bow of his silvery head, dismissed the assembly.

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