An Easter elegy

  • Themes: Easter, Religion

The power of Easter is that it doesn’t deny the pain or darkness of death, but places it in the context of eternal hope.

Stoke Poges churchyard, which inspired Thomas Gray's poem, 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard'
Stoke Poges churchyard, which inspired Thomas Gray's poem, 'Elegy in a Country Churchyard.' Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,

The place of fame and elegy supply:

And many a holy text around she strews,

That teach the rustic moralist to die.

The lead up to Easter is a good time to visit graveyards. They have form at that time of year. In my own little patch of English churchyard, Thomas Gray’s Elegy  comes to mind as I wander between the headstones and tabletop tombs. There is the Victorian arched stone of the Padbury family, beneath a yew to the garden’s north-west: ‘he giveth his beloved rest’. And the tragic Eden children, all three dead before a mere decade on earth, whose tomb instructs those who mourn that ‘their dear redeemer waits above’.

One of my predecessors as vicar, William Wellwood Stoddart, who died in the Italian city of Genoa, where he spent most of his time, has a memorial with text from Revelation: ‘Blessed are the Dead that die in the Lord.’ That to Arthur Payne, brother of a later vicar and the exact same age as me when he died in the sinking of HMS Tauranga off New Zealand, comforts those who mourn with the promise that ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain.’ None of them, however, bring me as much joy as the fact that the acre contains the remains of one ‘Mr Whippy’.

They are there – people’s parents, brothers, wives and daughters – resting, the stone generally also assures us, in peace. Rest, expectation, even gain, but in light of what? What inspiration links them? It is Easter, the feast that propagates the Christian idea of Resurrection.

Put aside the modern inanity of Easter being Assyrian or Nordic, a creation of proto-Fascists in the late 19th century, now given new life by the credulous of the internet. Let us ignore, too, the Easter Bunny. The actual claim of Easter is the Resurrection. That is what those in the earth in my churchyard wait for, why they can view death as gain.

The Resurrection – the doctrine that Jesus Christ actually, physically died on Good Friday and then rose again from the dead on Easter Day, the first fruits of a new order – has long been, for many, the most explicitly difficult aspect of Christianity. Without a doubt it has been the most misunderstood.

It started early as a stumbling block to people who otherwise thought that Jesus might have been onto a good thing with his moral teaching. St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church makes it clear that while some teachers have been suggesting that the specific Resurrection of Jesus was a sort of optional extra, in fact, ‘if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain’. Paul makes clear that without the Resurrection, nothing matters, the teaching of Jesus is pointless. Put another way: either everything is changed, even life and death, or nothing is.

That this was firmly laid out by Paul didn’t stop it remaining a problem. Many early Christians didn’t want to believe that God could or would actually die. Many who doubted Christianity thought it impossible that a man would rise again after death. Easter insists on both: that God actually dies, rests in the tomb, in the dark of the earth, and that, having done so, that same God rises again, changing humanity’s relationship with death forever.

In the earliest days of the Church, Marcionites and Docetists opted to reject the former, suggesting God could only appear to suffer rather than actually do so. Meanwhile, Ebionites and Nestorians rejected the latter, either rejecting Jesus’ divine nature or splitting it from his human one. Scholars would pick up where early believers left off: the explosion in biblical studies after the 18th century gave us ideas like the ‘swoon hypothesis’, that Jesus only fainted on the cross; or the ‘Jesus is a mushroom’ theory, which sought to explain the Resurrection experiences by way of suggesting that the first disciples were a group of proto-hippies under the influence of mind-bending drugs.

Even clerics have had their issues with the bodily resurrection. Bishop David Jenkins, who held the see of Durham in the 1980s, claimed in a pre-consecration interview that ‘the Resurrection was not a conjuring trick with bones’. The bishop wanted to suggest that the first Easter and, therefore its consequences for Christians ever since, was more spiritual than physical. Changed hearts and minds in the here and now mattered more. When York Minster was struck by lightning and set ablaze three days after his consecration as bishop, many in the press drew their own conclusions about the comments.

The idea of physically coming back to life is a difficult one. Both rationalism and superstition cast a doubtful eye over Easter, and continue to do so. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that both have at their heart a fear of the dark.

The power of Easter is that it absolutely – necessarily, even – embraces the reality of death, yet also refuses to grant it dominance. It doesn’t pretend that those who lie in the dark of the earth by the Padburys or the little Edens or Mr Whippy are not dead, but nor does it define them by that fact. It doesn’t deny the pain or darkness of death, but it places it in the context of hope.

Back to Gray. The inevitability of death, even for the blameless and the plain old boring, is a theme of his Elegy:

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,

Some frail memorial still erected nigh,

With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,

Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

There, though, he only tells part of the story. Easter means that such frail memorials cannot only be met by a sigh: for they are constructed as much in faith as in mourning, as much in hope as in grief. As much a testament to eternal life as they are to earthly death. Those inscriptions, true, teach us how to die, but, in light of the Resurrection, they promise us that we will live as well. Visit a graveyard this Easter: they still have form at this time of year.


Fergus Butler-Gallie