“In the Midst of Life We are in Death.” –Book of Common Prayer, The Burial of the Dead

In sure and certain hope, we toss
The soil in, and bless the dead.
The final sentences; that pause
Of awkward length, when all our breath,
Suspended, makes a short-lived sheath
Around the dead, and we bequeath
To this one all we have, our grief.
And then we must, with reverent tread,
Unsteady, turn and step across
The shadow of our silent dread
Of going back where we must breathe,
Once more, the air of common earth—
As if we have not been away,
Inside another kind of day:
A dreamlike time when we’re awake
To other worlds. Out of the deep,
Against death’s flow, we undertake
To surface from a stormy sleep.

The last insulting sting of death
Is not that dust returns to dust
But that, like Lazarus, we must
Return, unwilling, with a veil
Between us and this world—a place
Which recently had seemed quite real—
And never be the same, and face
Unsurely, for uncertain length
Of time, our lives, deprived of strength.

And then the brutal car doors close.
They slice the silence, break the spell
(Although emotion’s waves still swell
And heave beneath our mourning clothes),
As our attempts to breathe the air
Of both worlds—gasping as we are—
Inevitably fail. Banal
Details rip through our thoughts’ thick pall,
Abruptly force a change of gear
That dulls the day’s significance—
Loose gravel underneath the car;
Our seatbelts clicking as we glance
To catch a last look in the rear-
View mirror. Traffic—trite, mundane,
Oblivious—rolls past the lawn
Of gravestones where we just have been
(And somehow feel we still are there).
Stoplights and work-zone signs and rain
Engulf us. Easy silence gone,
Permission not to speak withdrawn,
Makes one of us suggest in vain
A drive-thru coffee for our pain.



Cynthia Erlandson is a poet and fitness professional living in Royal Oak, Michigan.  She has had poems published in First Things, Modern Age, Measure Journal, Anglican Theological Review, The North American Anglican, Forward in Christ, and the Anthologies The Slumbering Host (ed. Clinton Collister), and A Widening Light, (ed. Luci Shaw)

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14 Responses

  1. E. V. Wyler

    I like it, especially how you contrast the emotional realm of grief with the physical world of reality. I remember that after we placed my uncle into the earth, before we went home, we stopped off at a local diner. I guess it was the equivalent of your coffee stop.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you, E.V. At these times, it seems as if there is nothing to do that is quite the right thing.

  2. Peter Hartley

    Cynthia – This is very well written with good imagery and with descriptions of events that have clearly been recently observed. The poem maintains a sombre tone throughout and reminds me forcibly of events around my own bereavement earlier this year. Your comment on EV’s comment almost made me post one of my own forty-odd sonnets on the theme of bereavement and particularly how difficult it is to do “the right thing”, but I didn’t want to distract In any way from your own extremely fine contribution.

    • Cindy Erlandson

      Thank you so much, Peter. I’m grateful for your comments, and sorry for your loss.

  3. C.B. Anderson

    Cynthia (or Cindy), this was a highly-textured multi-leveled poem, to say the least. It will take me a few more readings to digest it entirely and properly. What strikes me most is that you know where you need to go and are able to get there with laudable verbal economy. The final couplet is exquisite, with irony enough to fill a silver goblet. Please let us see your work here again. I’m begging.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you very much, C.B.! I have enjoyed reading your fine work here, and feel honored by and grateful for your comments. I’m also thankful for the Society, and plan to continue reading and writing here. (I sign my work Cynthia, but my friends call me Cindy — so I answer to either name.)

  4. Margaret Coats

    This is indeed a splendid poem on many levels. To me, the final couplet is wistful, because I remember some funerals in which the mourners had much more time to spend in what you beautifully call “a dreamlike time when we’re awake to other worlds.” There was a wake the night before, ideally with the body spending the night in church before the morning funeral, followed by burial in the cemetery, and a reception or dinner to which everyone was invited. Almost always these days, for many reasons, this program has to be shortened, and some or all of the mourners abruptly break off their grief, and separate from one another with minimal consolation. The long ending section of your poem describes that so well.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      I’m truly grateful for your comments, Margaret. I do believe we need lots of time, as well as lots of ceremony, to mourn — much more than most funerals currently provide. I’m afraid that many people now want to almost deny death’s reality, as if we can quickly forget about it.

      • James A. Tweedie

        Cindy, I have always enjoyed the sometimes squirmy, noisome presence of small children at funerals. They (and the busy, nurturing, distracted, worshiping, grieving parents who attend to them) provide an affirmation of the present and future continuity of life in this world and (perhaps) instill in the children a familiarity with death that will serve them well as they experience it in their own lives when they are old enough to understand it more. Those with faith “do not grieve as those who have no hope,” but the food and coffee after the ceremony serve an important purpose, too, as they offer a distraction for some, a whiff of familiar normalcy to others, and a spur to share memories and other talk both large and small. As you can tell, I enjoy funerals on many levels and hope to be present to enjoy my own one day! Your poem captured the experience of a graveside service with exquisite detail, even including the crunch of gravel. The words that follow the phrase “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” are, for me, the best part of the liturgy. Thank you for sharing your poem and the experience that inspired it.

  5. Cynthia Erlandson

    Thank you, James; I agree with you. I think funerals are very important, especially for the bereaved family, of course; but also for all who attend, certainly including children. I wrote another poem about how I don’t like the trend toward only having a luncheon at which people talk about the deceased, look at pictures, etc., but eliminate the actual liturgical ceremony, which is both a comfort and a memento mori.

  6. Rod Walford

    Cynthia your excellent poem really struck a chord with me as my wife and I have this week been touring our beautiful local Memorial Park and choosing and purchasing a place for our ashes to be interred. During this process we were more concious of our friends and families who might be present than we were of ourselves ie: what sort of view would they have; is the footpath nice and level – things like that. So in a way we were on the “opposite side” of your poem for that period. Hope that makes sense. I’m with C.B. – would love to see more of your work. Good grief Cynthia!

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      Thank you very much, Rod; I like your vision of being on the opposite side during your walk in the memorial park. And I’m grateful for your encouraging comments.

  7. Monty

    This is a very thoughtful piece of work, Cynthia; skilfully written with an effortlessly light touch. I also admire some of your phrasings (“..we must, with reverent tread, unsteady, turn and step across the shadow of our silent dread”; “The last insulting sting of death”; “..emotion’s waves still swell and heave beneath our mourning clothes”) which display a beautiful use of language. On top of which, I’m quite certain that I shall never hear a better description of a funeral than your “A dream-like time when we’re awake to other worlds”. Phew!

    You’ve also concluded the piece very imaginatively, using the last ten lines to take the poem from its first phase to its second – bringing the mourner(s) from surreality (the funeral) back to reality (traffic, drive-thru coffee, etc).

    In one of your subsequent comments, I didn’t quite follow your suggestion that “we need more time to mourn than most funerals currently provide”. A funeral provides a service for one or two hours: and yet mourning can take weeks or months! So how can a funeral provide time to mourn? For me, being as non-religious as one can possibly be, the day of a funeral is less about the “liturgical service” and more about the wake; less about the mourning and more about the celebration . . a gathering to celebrate the life of the deceased! That, to me, is what the day of a funeral is all about; a celebration of one’s life. And once that day has passed, the mourning can then begin in earnest: in its own natural way, at its own natural pace, over its own natural course of time.

    I look forward to seeing more of your stuff on these pages.

    • Cynthia Erlandson

      I’m very grateful for your thoughtful and encouraging comments, Monty — thank you!
      I used this poem’s epigraph, from the Burial Service in the Book of Common Prayer, because I believe that the most important purposes of a funeral are written and heard in the liturgical service. One of those is to call to mind that we all are mortal and will meet our Creator when we die, and therefore to encourage us to make our relationship right with Him. “For dust we are, and to dust we shall return.” Another is to remind us that there is an afterlife — that death is not the end: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” This is an encouraging aspect of the service. Hope is added at the burial, with the words: “in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.” Funerals are really for us who remain on earth; and when we lose a loved one, we are devastated, and need a ritual that reflects meaning. Of course it is fine to celebrate a life that has ended — but not without mourning it (because death is our enemy, and ignoring it or pretending it’s not dreadful is denying what we know deep down) and not without ritually giving it back, for eternity, to its Creator. I find these things (the proper mourning; the acknowledgement of our mortality; the true meaning and purpose of life; the hope of eternity) to be missing when there is the celebration only, without these.
      As a poet, I have been greatly inspired, and learned so much, from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. It is VERY poetically written; I would recommend it to anyone interested in poetry.


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