IT is quite certain that there are immense benefits attending our present mode of burial in extra mural cemeteries. It was high time that the dead should be removed from the midst of the living — that we should not worship in the midst of corpses, and sit in the Lord’s house on the Sabbath, breathing the noxious effluvia of decaying bodies. But when we have said this, we must remember that there are some advantages which we have lost by the removal of the dead, and more especially by the wholesale mode of burial which now seems very likely to become general. We are not so often met by the array of dead. In the midst of our crowded cities we sometimes see the sable hearse bearing the relics of men to their last homes, but the funeral ceremonies are now mostly confined to those sweet sleeping places beyond our walks, where rest the bodies of those who are very dear to us.
Now, I believe the sight of a funeral is a very healthful thing for the soul.
Whatever harm may come to the body by walking through the vault and the catacomb, the soul can there find much food for contemplation, and much excitement for thought. In the great villages, where some of us were wont to dwell, we remember how, when the funeral came. now and then, the tolling of the bell preached to all the villagers a better sermon than they had heard in the church for many a day; and we recollect how, as children, we used to cluster around the grave, and look at that which was not so frequent an occurrence in the midst of a rare and spare population; and we remember the solemn thoughts which used to arise even in our young hearts when we heard the words uttered, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The solemn falling of the few grains of ashes upon the coffin-lid was the sowing of good seed in our hearts. And afterwards, when we have in our childish play climbed over those nettle-bound graves, and seated ourselves upon those moss-grown tombstones, we have had many a lesson preached to us by the dull, cold tongue of death, more eloquent than aught we have heard from the lip of living man, and more likely to abide with us in after years; but now we see little of death. We have fulfilled Abraham’s wish beyond what he desired — we “bury the dead out of our sight;” it is rarely that we see them, and a stranger passing through our streets might say, “Do these live always? for I see no funerals amongst the millions of this city; I see no signs of death.”
Shall we just take the wicked man’s arm and walk with him to the house of God? When he begins to go, if he be one who has neglected going in his childhood, which perhaps is not extremely likely; when he begins to go even in his childhood, or whenever you choose to mention, you will notice that he is not often affected by the sound of the ministry. He goes up to the chapel with flippancy and mirth. He goeth to it as he would to a theater or any other place of amusement, as a means of passing away his Sabbath and killing time. Merrily he trippeth in there; but I have seen the wicked man when he went away look far differently from what he did when he entered.
His plumes had been trailed in the dust. As he walks home there is no more flippancy and lightness, for he says, “Surely the Lord God has been in that place and I have been compelled to tremble. I went to scoff, but I was obliged, in coming away, to confess that there is a power in religion, and the services of God’s house are not all dullness after all.” Perhaps you have hoped good of this man. But, alas! he forgot it all, and cast away all his impressions. And he came again the next Sunday, and that time he felt again. Again the arrow of the Lord seemed to stick fast in his heart. But, alas! it was like the rushing of water. There was a mark for a moment, but his heart was soon healed, he felt not the blow; and as for persuading him to salvation, he was like the deaf adder: “charm we never so wisely,” he would not regard us so as to turn from his ways. And I have seen him come and go till years have rolled over his head, and he has still filled his seat, and the minister is still preaching, but in his case preaching in vain.
Still are the tears of mercy flowing for him; still are the thunders of justice launched against him; but he abideth just as he was. In him there is no change except this, that now he groweth hard and callous. You do not now hear him say that he trembles under the Word — not he. He is like a horse that hath been in the battle, he feareth not the noise of the drum nor the rolling of the smoke, and careth not for the din of the cannon. He cometh up, he heareth a faithful warning, and he saith, “What of it? this is for the wicked.” He heareth an affectionate invitation, and he saith, “Go thy way, when I have a more convenient season I will send for thee.” And so he comes and goes up to the house of God and back again. Like the door upon its hinges he turns into the sanctuary today, and out of it tomorrow. “He comes and goes from the place of the holy.” It may be, however, he goes even further. Almost persuaded to be a Christian by some sermon from a Paul, he trembles at his feet. He thinks he really repents; he unites himself with the Christian Church: he makes a profession of religion; but, alas! his heart has never been changed. The sow is washed, but it is the sow still. The dog has been driven from its vomit, but its doggish nature is there the same. The Ethiopian is clothed in a white garment, but he hath not changed his skin. The leopard hath been covered all over, but he hath not washed his spots away. He is the same as ever he was. He goes to the baptismal pool a black sinner, and he comes out of it the same. He goes to the table of the Lord a deceiver; he eats the bread and drinks the wine, and he returns the same. Sacrament after Sacrament passes away. The Holy Eucharist is broken in his presence; he receives it, but he comes and he goes, for he receives it not in the love of it. He is a stranger to vital godliness, and as a wicked man “he comes and he goes from the place of the holy.”
But is it not a marvelous thing that men should be able to do this? I have sometimes heard a preacher so earnestly put the matter of salvation before men, that I have said, “Surely they must see this.” I have heard him plead as though he pleaded for his own life, and I have said, “Surely they must feel this.” And I have turned round, and I have seen the handkerchief used to brush away the tear, and I have said, “Good must follow this.” You have brought your own friends under the sound of the Word, and you have prayed the whole sermon through that the arrow may reach the white and penetrate the center of the mark, and you said to yourself, “What an appropriate discourse.” Still you kept on praying, and you were pleased to see that there was some emotion. You said, “Oh, it will touch his heart at last!” But is it not strange that, though wooed by love divine, man will not melt; though thundered at by Sinai’s own terrific thunderbolts, they will not tremble; yea, though Christ Himself incarnate in the flesh should preach again, yet would they not regard Him, and mayhap would treat Him today as their parents did but yesterday, when they dragged Him out of the city and would have cast Him headlong from the summit of the mount on which the city was built. I have seen the wicked come and go from the place of the holy till his conscience was seared, as with a hot iron. I have seen him come and go from the place of the holy till he had become harder than the nether millstone, till he was past feeling, given up “to work all manner of uncleanness with greediness.”
But now we are going to change our journey. Instead of going to the house of God we will go another way. I have seen the wicked go to the place of the holy, that is to the judgment bench. We have had glaring instances even in the criminal calendar of men who have been seen sitting on a judgment bench one day, and in a short time they have been standing at the dock themselves. I have wondered what must be the peculiar feelings of a man who officiates as a judge, knowing that he who judges has been a lawbreaker himself. A wicked man, a greedy, lustful, drunken man — you know such are to be discovered among petty magistrates. We have known these sit and condemn the drunkard, when, had the world known how they went to bed the night before, they would have said of them, “Thou that judgest another doest the same things thyself.” There have been instances known of men who have condemned a poor wretch for shooting a rabbit or stealing a few pheasants’ eggs or some enormous crime like that, and they themselves have been robbing the coffers of the bank, embezzling funds to an immense extent, and cheating everybody. How singular they must feel!
One would think it must be a very strange emotion that passes over a man when he executes the law upon one which he knows ought to be executed upon himself. And yet, I have seen the wicked come and go from the holy place, until he came to think that his sins were no sins, that the poor must be severely upbraided for their iniquities, that what he called the lower classes must be kept in check, not thinking that there are none so low as those who condemn others whilst they do the same things themselves; speaking about checks and barriers, when neither check nor barrier were of any use to himself; talking of curbing others and of judging righteous judgment, when had righteous judgment been carried out to the letter, he would himself have been the prisoner, and not have been honored with a commission from Government.
I may have seen the wicked man buried in a quiet way. He is taken quietly to his tomb with as little pomp as possible, and he is with all decency and solemnity interred in the grave. And now listen to the minister. If he is a man of God, when he buries such a man as he ought to be buried, you do not hear a solitary word about the character of the deceased; you hear nothing at all about any hopes of everlasting life. He is put into his grave.
The minister well remembers how he did “come and go from the place of the holy;” he recollects full well how he used to sit in the gallery and listen to his discourse. And there is one who weeps; and the minister stands there and weeps, too, to think how all his labor has been lost, and one of his hearers has been destroyed, and that without hope. But note how cautiously he speaks, even to the wife. He would give her all the hope he could, poor widow as she is, and he speaks very gently. She says, “I hope my husband is in heaven.” He holds his tongue; he is very silent; if he is of a sympathetic nature he will be quiet. And when he speaks about the deceased in his next Sunday’s sermon, if he mentions him at all, he refers to him as a doubtful case; he uses him rather as a beacon than as an example, and bids other men beware how they presume to waste their opportunities, and let the golden hours of their Sabbath-day roll by disregarded. “I have seen the wicked buried who have come and gone from the place of the holy.” As for the pompous funeral, that was ludicrous. A man might almost laugh to see the folly of honoring the man who deserved to be dishonored, but as for the still and silent and truthful funeral, how sad it is! But after all, we ought to judge ourselves very much in the light of our funerals. That is the way we judge other things. Look at your fields tomorrow. There is a flaunting poppy, and there by the hedge-rows are many flowers hat lift their heads to the sun. Judging them by their leaf, you might prefer them to the sober colored wheat. But wait until the funeral, when the poppy shall be gathered and the weeds shall be bound up in a bundle to be burned — gathered into a heap in the field to be consumed, to be made into manure for the soil. But see the funeral of the wheat. What a magnificent funeral has the wheat-sheaf. “Harvest home!” is shouted as it is carried to the garner, for it is a precious thing. Even so let each of us so live, as considering that we must die. Oh, I would desire to live that when I leave this mortal state, men may say, “There is one gone who sought to make the world better! However rough his efforts might have been, he was an honest man; he sought to serve God, and there lies he who feared not the face of man.” I would have every Christian seek to win such a funeral as this — a funeral like Stephen’s: “And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.”
Every man likes to live a little longer than his life — Englishmen especially — for there is scarcely to be found a rock in all England up which even a goat might scarcely climb, where there may not be discovered the initials of the names of men, who never had any other mode of attaining to fame, and therefore thought they would inscribe their names there. Go where you will, you find men attempting to be known; and this is the reason why many people write in newspapers, else they never would be known. A hundred little inventions we all of us have for keeping our names going after we are dead. But with the wicked man it is all in vain; he shall be forgotten. He has done nothing to make anybody remember him. Ask the poor: “Do you remember So-and-so?” “Hard master, sir, very. He always cut us down to the last sixpence; and we do not wish to recollect him.”
Their children will not hear his name; they will forget him entirely. Ask the church, “Do you remember So-and-so? he was a member.” “Well,” says one, “I remember him certainly, his name was on the books, but we never had his heart. He used to come and go, but I never could talk with him.
There was nothing spiritual in him. There was a great deal of sounding bell-metal and brass, but no gold. I never could discover that he had the ‘root of the matter’ in him.” No one thinks of him, and he will soon be forgotten. The chapel grows old, there comes up another congregation, and somehow or other they talk about the old deacons who used to be there, who were good and holy men, and about the old lady who used to be so eminently useful in visiting the sick; about the young man who rose out of that church, who was so useful in the cause of God; but you never hear mention made of his name; he is quite forgotten. When he died his name was struck out of the books; he was reported as being dead, and all remembrance of him died with him. I have often noticed how soon wicked things die when the man dies who originated them. Look at Voltaire’s philosophy; with all the noise it made in his time — where is it now? There is just a little of it lingering, but it seems to have gone. And there was Tom Paine, who did his best to write his name in letters of damnation, and one would think he might have been remembered. But who cares for him now?
Except amongst a few, here and there, his name has passed away. And all the names of error, and heresy, and schism, where do they go? You hear about St. Austin to this day, but you never hear about the heretics he attacked. Everybody knows about Athanasius, and how he stood up for the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ; but we have almost forgotten the life of Arius, and scarcely ever think of those men who aided and abetted him in his folly. Bad men die out quickly, for the world feels it is a good thing to be rid of them; they are not worth remembering.