On a visit to Hong Kong I wandered into a shop stocked to the ceiling with paper goods in search of a notebook. I failed to find one and it quickly became apparent that everything in the shop was destined for something other than being written on. It was all for burning. Chinese Taoists believe their departed relatives are up with the gods and the best way to send them things is to emulate the smoke rising from a fire and just burn things to send them upwards.
Money features of course, although the not-so-stupid Chinese cottoned on fairly early to the fact that fake money costs less and burns just as well. But the shop also offered card replicas of everything from training shoes to reclining chairs - I suppose even the dead need a sit down after jogging round the clouds.
We don’t have an equivalent for this in the west. Perhaps we feel that when someone has made it to heaven, their needs are pretty much catered for. It would be a poor show, we might feel, if you had to spend your time in the afterlife worrying about money or uncomfortable trainers.
It’s quirky perhaps but no better or worse, and no less valid, than any of the myriad traditions and beliefs we humans maintain when it comes to what to do about those we’ve lost and still miss.
And it’s the dead who have brought me to St Mary Magdalene in Lillington this evening. Today is All Souls day and in much of the Christian community that means a special service in which we take a moment to remember people who have died.
The readings reflect the fact that we can’t escape death. There’s a time to be born and a time to die and so on. And we’re reminded - as we always are - that death is not the end and that eternal life waits for us. Even the hymns are uplifting in their marking of the progress of our lives. There’s a lovely modern setting of Teresa of Avila’s Christ has no Body now but Yours and I note, not for the first time, that music composed to honour the dead is invariably better than music which celebrates the living. Death monopolises the minor keys, the drama and the impact. St Mary Magdalene has a fine organ and a decent choir to underline this.
The first of two focal points in the service arrives with the reading of dozens of names of those whose friends and relatives want to be remembered. It’s a long list and puts me in mind of the memorial following the World Trade Centre attack. There’s a lot of couples here, husbands and wives I’d guess and the names suggests many had had long lives at the time of their deaths.
Most of the prayers I’ve come across in my visits are aimed at the living. When someone dies they seem to become the departed, the deceased, the late, and the focus is on the upset and grief of those left behind. The phrase ‘our thoughts are with the family’ seems to be reflected in the prayers we regularly hear. But today we just remember - and I am reminded of the basic need we all have to believe that after we’re gone our existence will still have some meaning in the minds we touched while we lived.
We surely can’t be praying that God will send our lost ones back. While some remembering people taken far too early or in tragic untimely circumstances might secretly, desperately hope some miracle could reverse the grief, I’m probably with the ‘seasons for everything’ way of thinking. Having my lost ones back would simply be bewildering.
Nevertheless in the service’s main focal point I light a candle and pause briefly to say hello to those I’ve loved and lost. Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t think of them, or recoil in horror at the pace with which the years are speeding me ever closer to joining them. By the time the congregation has taken its turn in lighting a candle, the church lights have been dimmed and we sing the last hymn in a highly atmospheric gloom. It’s a service and a moment I’m sure I will remember for a long time.
Perhaps that’s the purpose of all remembrance: to make us more keenly aware of the time we have left and the imperative to make ourselves remembered in other people’s minds. Thinking of the dead might make us go away and strive even harder to make our mark in this world. After all, you can’t take it with you. Unless it’s cardboard.