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.
Here’s your Ash Wednesday story. A mother carries her tiny daughter With her as she gets ashed and the Girl, curious and wriggly, squirms Into the path of the priest’s thumb Just as the finger is about to arrive On the mother’s forehead, and the Ashes go right in the kid’s left eye. She starts to cry, and there’s a split Second as the priest and the mother Gawk, and then they both burst out Laughing. The kid is too little to be Offended, and the line moves along, But this stays with me; not the ashy Eye as much as the instant when all Could have been pain and awkward But instead it led to mutual giggling. We are born of dust and star-scatter And unto this we shall return, this is The Law, but meantime, by God, we Can laugh our asses off. What a gift, You know? Let us snicker while we Can, brothers and sisters. Let us use That which makes dark things quail.
Between 1990 and 2010, Iowa lost over 500 churches. The numbers reflect migration from rural to urban areas and the fewer number of people who identify with a faith community. The decline in churches is having a direct effect on the social fabric of the state. According to research at Iowa State University, nine out of ten rural people said they rely less on their neighbors than they once did. Surviving churches have gone back to older patterns to find leadership, engaging itinerant pastors or lay leaders. Some are surviving through cooperation with other denominations or with ethnic Christian groups (Pacific Standard, January 20).