The Dead and the Living, by W. H. Hudson

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.