13 October 2012


Locus Focus: Take Eighty!

The Burial Grounds challenge opened last week with not just a dead body, but also a dead civilisation. (Sometimes I like to over-deliver like that. See Take Seventy-Nine for details.)

Today, I've returned to the modern world and a still-living civilisation--but one which may, come to think of it, already be in its terminal stage. This side of the grave, nothing lasts forever--not even with all the wealth, power, or even goodness in the world.

Commander Rodney's Grave
A Ring of Endless Light
by Madeleine L'Engle

Grandfather stood at the edge of the open grave, dark earth piled up behind him. When we got to the cemetery, there had been a carpet-like thing of phony green grass over the earth, and Grandfather had said with quiet steel, "Take it away," and two of the Coast Guard men had silently removed it . . .

. . . gently but firmly, he pushed away one of the funeral-type men who was handing him a vial of dirt. It was obvious he was making the funeral people feel frustrated, rejecting their plastic glass and their plastic dirt. He was emphasising the fact that Commander Rodney's death was real, but this reality was less terrible than plastic pretense.

I looked at the rich, dark brown of the piled earth, and there, hovering over it, was a gorgeous red-and-gold butterfly . . .

Sometimes burial grounds are also battle grounds, where the living fight for the dignity of the dead. This novel's first skirmish is at the open grave of a man whom the reader has arrived too late to meet, but whom everyone else would have gladly granted a few more decades left to live.

So I see where the "funeral-type men" are coming from when they use the "plastic grass" to cover the mound of dirt waiting to be shoveled back into the grave and have a vial of "plastic dirt" ready for the pastor to fling atop the coffin. The reality of death has sharp, jagged edges; it is almost an act of kindness to the bereaved to blunt the pain with a bit of prettiness. Except that it isn't. And that it's an incredible insult to the departed. It is supposed to hurt that a good man is dead.

It is a strange mercy (my favourite kind of mercy, incidentally) that he dies in the month the narrator's grandfather is acting as pastor to their church. Although the latter has been retired for years, he takes over during the month the regular minister is on holiday. And if you want to marvel at the timing a little more, it is likely the last time he will ever be able to do this; he himself is dying of leukemia. The narrator admits she does not know whether the regular minister would have routed that attack against the late Commander Rodney's dignity in the same way.

But the action does not linger over this victory at the cemetery, and soon we read that the "plastic pretense" has won a battle of its own. A few days after the funeral, we find out that another character's mother has just died and that her body was frozen and preserved, for scientists "to resurrect" in a few hundred years.

Her son reports the news nonchalantly. Unlike Commander Rodney's eldest son, he does not seem hurt that one of his parents is dead, for he does not allow himself to think of her as dead. And he must believe that what he has done for her and for everyone else who loved her is a great act of kindness.

Except that it isn't.

Do you have a setting you'd like to share?
Link it up in the combox and I'll leave you a comment! =)

Image Source: A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle


Belfry Bat said...

There's that red-flag "almost", again...

You know, I might just join up once (or maybe twice) this month, with a couple from that book I just finished this Monday.

Enbrethiliel said...


"Almost" could be its own theme. Well, almost. =P

I'd love to read what you've got! =)