The footage of elephants, referred to in the poem can be seen here.
Christopher Reid’s poem – the poem that gives the title to a collection he wrote after the death of his wife – evokes images which you may be familiar with. As he says “ I expect you’ve seen the footage…” The footage he’s referring to probably comes from one of those David Attenborough documentaries, which filmed a group of elephants through the year. At one point they came across the remains of a long-dead elephant – mostly just dry bones by this stage. They stopped and fell silent, running their trunks over the body, smelling and gently touching it. They picked up the bones and held them for a while, then dropped them down again. It was impossible to think they were doing anything other than remembering and grieving. They didn’t treat the bones of other animals that way, and it was clear that this individual, whoever he or she had been, mattered to them, and hadn’t been forgotten.
As Christopher Reid says in the poem, there’s nothing really that they could do about it. They couldn’t put the elephant back together again, they couldn’t take the bones with them, they couldn’t dig a grave or do any of the things humans might do with their dead, but it seems that they couldn’t just walk on by either. All they could do was turn the bones over and over, then put them back again, rearranged a bit by the process of grieving. It was extraordinarily moving footage – and similar scenes have been filmed by others, so this is obviously common elephant behaviour.
For Christopher Reid, still in the early stages of grieving for his wife, Lucinda, who had died from cancer, this image seemed to echo his own feelings. What could he do in the wake of her death? Nothing would bring her back. But, of course, he couldn’t just move on, leaving all that she had been to him behind. He couldn’t forget her, even if he had wanted to.
Remembering is one of the most important elements of grieving. At a funeral, we remember the person who has died. We tell their story and recall them in other ways too; through pictures, flowers in their favourite colours, music they liked. Sometimes it’s the small details which bring back their memories most vividly.
After a funeral people may find other ways of remembering too – a headstone in a graveyard, or an entry in the memorial book for example. Or we might plant a tree or make a donation to their favourite cause or run a marathon in their name.
This church, like most old churches is full of memorials. As well as the gravestones outside, inside the church there are tablets on the walls and floors to people long gone. The oldest is for Sir William de Bryene, up by the altar, who died in 1395. Then there’s Clemence Theobold, above the vestry door, who was mother, grandmother and great grandmother to 115 children by the time she died. There’s the first Earl Camden in the Lady Chapel, a prominent politician who was closely tied up with the debate which led to the American War of Independence, and little Elizabeth Mills, whose lovely monument, in the shape of a child wrapped around in angel’s wings, stands by the Lady Chapel altar. Some of the memorials aren’t nearly as obvious though. Many things in the church have been given over the years in memory of those who died. Some of the kneelers were worked in the memory of loved ones. There are prayer books with dedications in them. Some of the pews themselves carry dedications too. We are surrounded, whether we know it or not, by a cloud of memories here.
Remembering can be comforting, but it can also be painful, especially when we’re caught by surprise.. A song, a sound, a smell can suddenly ambush and overwhelm us. Sometimes we might long to forget for a while, but life’s not like that. Just like those elephants in the poem, sometimes we might not be sure what to do with the memories we stumble across, but we can’t ignore them. They intrude on our lives, whether we like it or not. We turn them over and over, unable to put them down.
What the poem hints at, though, is that this process of remembering – whether we choose it or not – can help us gradually to shape and sort our memories, to see them in a new light, to rearrange them into new patterns, bit by bit, gently and slowly. We place our “sad thoughts in new, hopeful arrangements.”
It’s the word “hopeful” which is the key. The grief of the elephants in the poem seems futile up to that point. It just makes them feel sad all over again, raking up feelings which would be better left untouched. But the act of remembering is also an act of love. It says, “this individual matters – human or elephant.” Yes it hurts that they are not here, but our love is greater than our hurt and in the end love makes the hurt worthwhile. In time it might even help us to find a measure of peace, acceptance and joy within the hurt, we realise that there is a sense in which love – and the people we love – are never really lost. Their gifts are ours to keep, and they are in the safekeeping of God who heals what is broken and wipes every tear from their eyes.
The Bible reading we heard underlines that message too. What looks like an end to us may not be as final as we feared and that for all of us, living and departed, there is a future – a “new, hopeful arrangement.”
“Beloved, we are God’s children now,” says the letter of John, an early Christian leader writing to a small group of Christians in a time of persecution and danger. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” Our present grief, confusion and fear, is not the whole story of our lives. God is with us in it – we are his children - he cares about us. And as he walks with us through the days and months and years he works in us, if we will let him, to heal, comfort and transform us.
So tonight we bring all our memories to God. Memories of love, memories of pain, memories we treasure, and memories we wish we could forget. Like those elephants, we simply spread them out before God, turning them over to look at them again in his presence, and pray that he will help us to place them into “new, hopeful arrangements” so that we can go forward into the future with joy.