Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Boreham on Conducting One’s Own Funeral

MARK TWAIN more than once makes merry at the lugubrious and fantastic conception of a man mourning at his own funeral. In these passages the genial humorist is not at his best.

He misses the true inwardness of things. There is nothing in actual experience more common and nothing more pathetic than for a man to occupy the position of chief mourner at his own burial.

We have often read the touching records of missionaries on the islands, who are compelled to act as grave-diggers and chaplains at the funerals of their own wives and children. And quite recently we heard of a stricken and lonely woman, in an ocean solitude, who was called to nerve herself to perform the same melancholy offices at the burial of her husband.

But life holds an even deeper pathos. It is the tragic experience of every manwho rightly reads the riddle of life to preside, perhaps more than once, at his own obsequies. He looks tearfully down upon the plate upon which his own name and age are inscribed, and says, deliberately and bravely, ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’

Lord Dufferin has told us that he owes his very life to a vivid dream in the course of which he seemed to be a mourner at his own funeral. Many a man owes far more than life itself not to a mere dream, but to the actual experience…

That is a great story which Professor Herkless tells us in his Life of Francis d'Assisi. On the one hand Francis longed to be a friar and to dedicate himself to poverty and pilgrimage. On the other hand he loved a sweet and noble and gracious woman. He wrestled with his alternatives, and at length, through an agony of tears, he chose the cloak and the cowl.

But still the lovely face haunted him by cloister and by shrine. And one radiant moonlit night, when the earth was wrapped in snow, the brethren of the monastery saw him rise at dead of night. He went out into the grounds, and, in the silvery moonlight, fashioned, out of the snow, images of wife and children and servants. He arranged them in a circle, and sat with them, and, giving rein to his fancy, tasted for one delicious hour the ecstasies of hearth and home, the joys of life and love. Then, solemnly rising, he kissed them all a tearful and a final farewell, renounced such raptures for ever, and re-entered the convent. That night Francis the friar buried himself. He read his own funeral service. He had made his choice; and, in order that his life might not be clogged by the haunting images of dead possibilities, the man who had decided to be a friar buried everything except the friar….

We have all read the affecting and informing and heart-searching correspondence of Dr. Marcus Dods. No man sounded the very depths of life's innermost experiences more terribly than did he. He felt called to be a minister. He buried every other inclination and possibility. Then came years of neglect and rejection. No congregation would call him. But, with a courage never excelled on a battle-field, he held on. He looked wistfully at the graves in which he had buried his earlier fancies. But he would allow no resurrection. And at last came recognition and reward. And out of that agonizing experience he wrote on the economy of life, and he deserves to be listened to with bated breath, ‘Every man,’ the doctor says, ‘as he grows into life, finds he must employ such an economy on his own account. He is pressed to occupy positions or to engage in work which will prevent him from achieving the purpose for which nature has fitted him. He is offered promotion which seems attractive and has its advantages; but he declines it, because it would divert him from his chosen aim.

Continually people spoil their life by want of concentration. They are greatly tempted to do so, for the public foolishly concludes that, because a person does one thing well, they can do everything well; and the one who has written a good history is straightway asked to sit in Parliament, or the person whose scholarship and piety have been conspicuous is offered preferment which calls for the exercise of wholly different qualities.

F W Boreham, ‘On Conducting One’s Own Funeral’, The Luggage of Life (London: Charles H Kelly, 1912), 209-214.