Then take up the strain

One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.
– Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds

There’s an old Chinese story about an acolyte who asks his teacher what he should do (to achieve enlightenment, or with his life, or that day, it doesn’t really matter). Sweep the path, says the teacher. He sweeps the path for an hour. The teacher takes one look at it and slaps his face. It’s not clean! He sweeps the path for two hours. He goes down on hands and knees and picks off every last speck of dirt. He tells the teacher he’s finished. The teacher takes one look at the path and slaps him again. It’s not clean! Not knowing what else to do, he sweeps the perfectly clean path for the rest of the day. As the sun sets the teacher comes out of his cell, looks at the path and slaps him once more: It’s not clean! Despairing, the acolyte pleads with the teacher to tell him how he can possibly make the path any cleaner than it is. The teacher takes a handful of rose petals and scatters them on the path. Now it’s clean.

Here’s a song by the Canadian songwriter Stan Rogers (starts at about 1:40, but the first part of the clip is worth watching).

You can read the lyrics here. The chorus goes like this:

Rise again! Rise again!
That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men
Those who loved her best and were with her till the end
Will make the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.

I last heard that song at a singaround last week. I’d heard it a few times before and not thought much about it, but at the singaround I was close to tears. The singer did do the song particularly well, but I was also affected by her introduction: she said that it had been a favourite of her mother’s, and that it had been played at her mother’s funeral.

A couple of weekends ago we went to Brighton, partly to have a weekend in Brighton (which was fun) but partly to visit my parents’ grave. My mother’s ashes were interred in the summer of 2006, in a memorial garden where my father’s ashes had been buried five years earlier. A few months later some relatives and close friends formally placed a stone over where the ashes were buried, commemorating both of them. I was involved in the discussions about what it should say on the stone, but at the time I didn’t feel up to attending the ceremony. So this was to be the first time I’d seen the stone.

The only problem was, the stone wasn’t there. There were a couple of stones that had been placed since the interment of my mother’s ashes – including one for the previous rector of the church, who died (far too young) shortly before she did – but no sign of my parents’ stone. I looked at all the other stones twice or three times in case I’d somehow misread them, and looked everywhere else in the small plot where a stone could be lurking, but I couldn’t find anything. And there I had to leave it for Saturday, as the church was closed and there was nobody in the churchyard except the usual scattering of people enjoying a green thought in a green shade (or in one case a can of Special Brew in a green shade, but you might as well do it there as anywhere). We went back on Sunday morning, waited for the service to end and then waylaid the (new) rector. He disappointed me slightly by denying all knowledge – admittedly he never knew my mother, but he did preside at her interment. (I could remember him clearly; he sang all the hymns in a rather forceful counter-tenor, briefly convincing me that an operatic soprano had slipped into the church while I wasn’t looking.)

He succeeded in passing me on to one of the women who take care of the church on a voluntary basis; I didn’t know her, but she did know my mother, and had been at my father’s funeral. More importantly, she knew where my parents’ stone was, or should be. There was a bush which had been heavily pruned and responded with an extravagant burst of growth, as they are wont to do. Below that, at ground level, there was a fairly dense carpet of vegetation; the volunteer caretaker thought it was violets, but I think there was something else there too. (Either that or there’s a variety of violet which has big hairy leaves, grows horizontally and sets root suckers, like a bramble.) Below that there were dry leaves and odd bits of debris (mostly organic), and below that there was dry soil. Below that, getting on for a quarter of an inch down, I finally found the stone. (The plot is on a slope; runoff from the rain will have flowed over the stone and left earth behind.)

When we visit my mother-in-law’s grave, my wife sees to it that we’re equipped with all manner of shovels and rakes and implcleaning materials, including a bottle of water and several cloths. I hadn’t anticipated any of this – I didn’t imagine that the stone would need more than a little light dusting – so all I had was my hands. We managed to get hold of some water and some paper towels, and after a bit of work I’d restored the stone to this state.


It’s not clean clean – there was only so much I could do with paper towels, particularly given that the stone’s Welsh slate and scratches very easily – but it’s better than it was.

And that’s why I was almost in tears when I heard someone singing

Rise again! Rise again!
That her name not be lost to the knowledge of men

There aren’t many people in Brighton who remember my mother now, and fewer still who remember my father; time like an ever-rolling stream, and so forth. It’s sad to think that so much is over – and, looking ahead, it’s sad to think that my labours in the churchyard won’t last forever; by the time I go there next it will probably need doing again. But for now it’s good to know that I’ve done something to ensure that their names aren’t lost to the knowledge of men, even in the knowledge that I’m ultimately fighting a losing battle. (If you listen to the song, the emphasis is consistently on pride in the work rather than confidence in the result; at the end of the song the boat is still underwater.) It was also good to see my mother’s house again: good to see that it has risen again, inasmuch as it’s occupied and well looked after, with a new shrub out the front. All in all there was a sense of a job done; a job I can be satisfied with, and turn my back on.

Back at the churchyard, my son didn’t offer to help clear the stone but let me get on with it, for which I was grateful. But there was a rather faded rose, shedding a lot of petals, growing nearby – and when I’d finished with the stone he did this:

Stone with petals

And now it’s clean.


  1. Posted 13 August 2010 at 13:19 | Permalink | Reply

    Your post resonates twice for me. Once, because Stan Rogers was wonderful – I particularly like his Northwest Passage and Barratt’s Privateers but really it’s his voice rather than the song that does the trick – and linked to my own time in Hamilton, which was a special one. Twice, because my own Dad has a small, modest stone (Frank Slee, 1929 – 1985) and the last time I went to visit I could hardly see the stone from the path because some smug bastard had put up a great big monstrosity right in front of it. It would be nice to think that immodesty would get its just deserts at some point, but apparently it doesn’t. No cleaning that one out of the way.

    • Phil
      Posted 13 August 2010 at 21:35 | Permalink | Reply

      That’s really sad. What I didn’t mention in my post was that one of the first things I saw in the memorial garden was a large and ostentatious plaque in memory of a local celebrity (who certainly wasn’t interred there), and for a while I found it hard to quash the suspicion that it had been laid on top of my parents’ stone. (It wasn’t, of course.) Your story is a bit like that, and much worse for being true.

      I’ve only really discovered Stan Rogers recently – when I heard the name I pictured some grizzled Pete Seeger type, and I didn’t associate it with half his songs (I was sure Barratt’s Privateers was traditional). It was only when I was researching that post that I realised he’d died so young – a dreadful loss.

      • Posted 15 August 2010 at 10:47 | Permalink

        This is quite strange in a way. My great grandmother who was from Birmingham and came over to Ireland with my gran and mother in the 1960s is buried in a graveyard on Howth Hill outside of Dublin. I haven’t been up to see it in years, but my mother and an English relative visited it last week and are talking about changing or adding to the inscription on the stone. So I’d actually planned to visit this weekend.

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