Wee Agnes Sawrey widdow & Dorothy Tyson Spinster do severally make oath yt ye Corps of Margaret Tyson of Gryzedale in the Parish above s’d beeing buryed the first of Aprill 1696 was not put in wrapt wound up or buryed in any shirt sheet shift or shroud mad or mingled with Flax Hemp or any Coffin lined wth cloth or any materiall but what is made of sheep wooll only according to a Late Act of Parliamt made for Burying in Woollen. In witness herof wee the saide Agnes Sawrey & Dorothy Tyson have sett our Hands & Seals. Aprilis, Ano Di 1696. —Parish document in St. Michael and All Angels Church, Hawkshead, Cumbria
In Norway when you die, they clothe you in a gown of purest white. Egyptians sucked out organs, layered presoaked linen strips around each desiccated limb. It matters what you wrap a body in.
I am one of the few that walk the footpaths on the fell today who put on wool against the sharp October air. The scattered sheep are unimpressed. Warming these hills with active tongues, they are unaware that Parliament, to buoy the trade, once ruled that only wool could be the spun and woven garment of the dead.
Agnes and Dorothy held to the law, picking softest weave of shift or sheet or shroud to lay against the body of their Margaret— like the Marys in the story, who laid his body out, washed and oiled, and put, wrapt, wound up, and buryèd each limb in swaddling clothes to match the ones his little body wore in Bethlehem—the cloth he wore to meet with life and fight with death— he who newborn slept among the shepherds and their silent, woolly sheep.
We fought for one more sputter of the old life. Even though a breeze passing over your sieve of skin could send you screaming, you muscled up your diaphragm to whisk more air into the fire.
I held my own terrors to my chest: failures and brush-offs, cancers and crashes, all the anxieties I had grown to love heaving and cracking like your ribcage until we both gave out.
Then there was the mess of prying us loose: wailing women and splintered lumber, flesh stubbornly sticking to the nails. But what swift hands, that Joseph of Arimathea, what purposeful footsteps crunching the ground!
He wrapped us in linen and spices. Only the hapless world could think of packing fifty pounds of aloe around a dead man’s wounds. But we drank it in like deserts until finally even the lizards scurried home.
I lay in the cave and wanted to touch you, but my hands were no longer mine. They closed in on themselves like daylilies. The stone rumbled over the window of light, and then our difficult rising began.
Sat by the river for a long time making sure it was still working. There’s a pile of finches in the currants stuffing themselves silly. This one finch slurped so many berries he could hardly get aloft. He sort of lurched off the branch and lumbered into the holy air. It seemed like the other finches were razzing him but maybe not. He fell toward the river like a huge currant covered with feathers. You have to grin at the greedy green thrilled persistence of it all, You know what I mean? Because there are finches in the bushes, Exactly so. What could ever be a more eloquent prayer than that?