Friday, February 6, 2009

When the Hearse Goes By


One of the favorite folk songs that American children learn either from their families or on the playgrounds deals with the gruesome subject of decomposition. The song's origins go back to the 19th century, at least, when it was documented among British soldiers serving in the Crimean campaign. The catchiness of the melody and the rare opportunity to speak humorously about the ugly side of death doubtlessly has ensured the ballad's survival into the 21st century. Like most folk songs, there is no definitive version. -from
This is the version I remember learning as a child, or at least, all I remember of it:

Did you ever think when a hearse goes by 
that you might be the next to die? 
They wrap you up in a dirty sheet Justify Full
and bury you down about six feet deep.
The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out 
the worms play pinochle in your snout.

This song has been a vivid reminder of the reality of death to many generations of children.  A gooey, creepy picture of death to be sure, but certainly one that a child can relate to and find interesting.   The hearse is indeed a reminder to us all that we may be the next to die.  As the person driving the hearse, I feel the discomfort of many who look upon, and try not to look upon the scene.  Sometimes a friend is driving in the opposite direction and tries to figure out in an instant if it's alright to wave to me or not.  Sometimes the postman will stop and take off his cap. Certainly everyone notices the hearse, and although most pretend not to notice, I bet quite a few picture the worms playing cards.

The hearse doesn't roll through town as often as it used to.  More and more of us are choosing services that deal less and less with the reality of death, and more with the life that was lived.  It is a good thing that we celebrate life, but I think that communities of humans need that reminder that one of them has died, and remember to celebrate life while it's here, because one of us will certainly be next. 


Anonymous said...

Fantastic post, and very much in the spirit of one of my favorites, “Stranger stop and cast an eye….”

I am not ancient, nor was I raised in a small community, yet I can absolutely recall what behavior used to be customary when a hearse passed by. There was no pointed looking away, as I observe happens now. Rather, that hearse demanded acknowledgment. Kids stopped playing, neighbors stopped chatting, everything stood still for those few moments - and it did not matter a bit if you had no idea who the passenger was.

As a child, I wasn’t really of the mindset to reflect on my own mortality (though I surely would have been thinking of worms had I been taught that song!) and no one scared me into contemplating my own eventual demise. Instead, it was acceptable to maybe say a little prayer, if you were so inclined, or have a compassionate thought for the grief-stricken people in the limo directly behind. At the very least, you were respectfully silent, even if your brain was screaming, “Better you than me!” Today, my reaction can be any of the above, depending upon my mood, but there is a reaction.

This wasn’t something particular to my family, mind you – it was just sort of the way things were – and I can’t help but feel it was a better, healthier behavior than what has replaced it.

ash said...

"Joshua Judges Ruth" the fantastic album by Lyle Lovette has a few songs that recall this very type of moment. I've never thought once they were sad songs either. There's a certain grace in that passing. And a certain dignity that lies beneath it all. Each will have their turn and we acknowledge that.

I do think the PC push to remember the life has the possible problem of forgetting the death.

I used to work in a photo lab in the very early days of photoshop. I fixed, restored and altered photos. When people realized they could revitalize the memory of their dead they'd rush in with a various array of photos asking what could be done. Sad and touching were the ones in which the only photo of that person had been damaged. But creepy and just wrong were the ones in which I'd have to add a dead relative (sometimes LONG dead) into this past Christmas or recent wedding. I never understood that and never will.

I am all for rich living memorials or honoring those who have died. But I do think our children should still sing these songs.

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