Often bereavement leads to a major task of sorting. Deciding what to do with the stuff of long lives – items acquired over decades – can take a lot of time. Not only because of the volume of items, but also because each can stir a memory. In some cases there may be little that remains, as the work of sorting has been integral to moves from family home to smaller house, to a flat and maybe, finally, a single room. Yet this can also mean that the little which remains is the most moving.
It is tempting to become pious on this topic and tut at a materialism which many in the West take for granted. Yet tangible things have a potency when they are linked to lives we have known and loved. A simple item can be a connection across generations and remind us of an enjoyment they inspired in someone no longer here. The photo above is of my grandfather’s fountain pen – which I’m guessing was a gift for his twenty-first birthday in 1922. There’s no one still alive to ask, but its gold band bears his initials and it’s a lovely keepsake.
These reflection on the ‘Things of Mourning’ were prompted by a few words from Acts chapter 9. Following the death of Dorcas we hear that Peter went with the mourners to visit the deceased. On arrival the women were ‘weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made’. There is a sense that in showing these items of creativity and skill the personality of Dorcas is evoked and honoured. ‘Things’ can aid our grieving as they bear the imprint of someone’s personality.
My father was a prolific watercolour hobbyist. Retirement didn’t halt his enthusiasm and he continued to paint into his 80s. He was midway through a new picture when illness overtook him and his life came to an end. I still have this uncompleted work. After he died we found paintings everywhere. Some on the walls, others in boxes and some in bags. There were even unframed paintings behind the sofa. Every time we went to look for something we found more! So, at his funeral, a room adjacent to the church became a temporary exhibition where friends and family could help themselves to something for both memory and enjoyment.
For all these reasons it is easy to understand how people become so distressed when a burglary results in the loss of something with little financial value. The anguish has nothing to do with price, but everything to do with value. As Thomas A Kempis wrote many centuries ago:
A wise lover values not so much the gift of the lover as the love of the giver.Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
Gifts and the things we inherit have a power to token a love which continues to be lodged in our memory after someone has died. The things of mourning matter for the connections they enable. What they may be made of matters very little: what they mean can touch the depths of our soul.