Not infrequently I am reminded of the grim demographic realities of human life. All people die, even those close to us, and that is painful and grievous. Yet I find myself consoled by visiting cemeteries: as the cliché goes, when so many better people than I have gone before, can I really be resentful? Still, nothing is as sad as the marker of a dead child, and when you trek through nineteenth-century graveyards you come across the cold stone that must have reflected great grief.
They say that people in those times were fatalistic about child death because it was so common that they were to some degree inured to it. I’m not so sure. A distant collateral relative of mine died at age three in 1866 and his parents invested in a locket with his photograph and a snipping of his blond hair. To judge by the condition of the locket it must have been carried by a parent for the rest of a lifetime. I wrote about him and the locket here.
In Alexandria, in the Presbyterian Cemetery, I saw a stone that equivocally testifies to parental grief. It is the marker of the three dead children of Charles and Honore Pascoe:
The anagraphic data is clear in the elegant script of the early nineteenth century. William died at age 3 years, 9 months, Charles at 2 years and 7 months, and William (II) at 11 months. They were born in approximately May 1801, March 1804, and October 1806.
The poem in two quatrains below in italic script is not a dialogue, but two separate utterances by the concerned parties.
The top quatrain is spoken by the two parents to the wayfarer, the bottom by the dead children to the parents:
Here lies three children sweet asleep,
Which brings fresh to our mind,
That die we must, and come to dust,
And leave this world behind.
Weep not for us our parents dear,
We are not dead but sleeping here.
God took us home as he thought best,
And now in heaven our souls doth rest.
This poem is clearly a vernacular product, to judge by the inconsistent rhyming scheme. It was arguably assembled in part from bits and pieces that circulated in the verse equivalents of pattern books: the greatest is Charles Box’s Elegies and Epitaphs, published in 1892 in the UK. For example, “Weep not for us, our parents dear” can be found without the succeeding verses in many places, including in Box. In fact you can see how banal it is by replacing the last four syllables of that verse with the word “Argentina.”
In the first quatrain we have the rhyme of verses 2 and 4 (mind-behind) and the internal rhyme of verse 3 (must-dust). In the second quatrain, we have no internal rhyme but a consecutive pattern AABB (dear-here; best-rest).
The meter in the first quatrain is tetrameter-trimeter-tetrameter-trimeter, in iambs. In the second, it is straight iambic tetrameters (see that heaven is “heav’n”). On the whole, I think the children should have joined the dead poets’ society, because their product is far better than their living parents’.
In the first quatrain, we hear that the death of the children has brought to mind that all must die, we all turn to dust, we leave the world behind. This is as fatalistic as you get, a consolation along the lines of the cliché I referred to at the top. The tombstone’s skull memento mori supports this view completely.
But the children insist that their death is really sleep, that God brought them home, and that they’re doing well in paradise. Leaving aside that this is a commonplace, it certainly tries to effect a resolution to the fatalism of the parents. In fact, the parents address the wayfarer, whereas the children evidently interrupt them with the good news.
Put in the best possible light, the parents in despondency have forgotten their faith, and the children remind them of it, appealing to the consolatory power of religion. It’s an extraordinary production, and the crazy skull at the top is not much like a human one. But it does look like an alien skull, as can be seen in this archival footage.