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Song of the Wailing Women

Her spirit has gone forth.
Return her to the earth,
Released from work and words;
In death she is the Lord’s.

Did Adam bury Eve?
Leave Abraham to grieve
The wife no longer his.
He buys a field that is
The plot of holy land
First owned as his wise hand
Weighs out in silver money
The price of milk and honey
For tribes yet in time’s womb.

In their ancestral tomb
Is faithful Sarah laid,
By bier and dirge conveyed.
Her lovely body asks
For tears, heart-stricken tasks
Of nature’s abject grief.
Today’s farewell is brief
Though most exquisite care
Is called for by her fair
Remembrance and repose.

Mother, what keener woes
Than comb and veil your hair!
Forlorn, we join in prayer
To honor your life’s essence;
You honor our due presence.

Princess, your promised son,
Isaac, will welcome one
By covenant decreed,
The sempiternal seed
Who speaks to every need
For children, land, or peace,
Of sufferings to cease.

We wail for mourners dumb,
A son and husband numb,
And all our household band.
The oaks of Mamre stand
Nearby, extending roots
To clasp the cave while flutes
And visitors depart
This chamber still and dark.

Putrescence in the place
Helps flesh decay apace.
Forgotten by their kin
The dead no notice win
Except when fresh lament
Supplies the monument
With conscious company
And pious psalmody.

The matriarch here rests,
A corpse with no more quests
Or laughter, sense, or soul,
Her person in control
Of one in whom to trust
As bodies turn to dust.

Let reverent manly groans
Together with soft moans
Storm forth in sorrow’s blast
From this day’s dismal fast.
The cup of comfort given
As hushed and hueless heaven
Reveals its starry host,
Betokens that her ghost
By angels led away
Moves freed from its dear clay.

Rare riches for the dead
Are not grave goods but bread
The seraphim consume
Beyond this anteroom
Where bones are kept to dry
In hope to purify
Remains of guilt until
Most precious blood can spill
Thereon and make them live
New life our God can give.

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Poet’s Note: In Genesis 23, the patriarch Abraham buys a field with a cave for his wife’s burial. This is the nomad’s first acquisition of land promised his descendants by God. God also made the far-reaching promise, “In thee shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). Genesis 17:19 states that this chief promise is to be fulfilled through Isaac, long-awaited son of the elderly Sarah (a name meaning “princess”). With Isaac’s seed, God will establish a perpetual covenant, unlimited by time.

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Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others. 


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25 Responses

  1. Cynthia Erlandson

    I love that you’ve chosen to expand on the Bible’s simple statement that Sarah died, by exploring the emotional reactions to her death. ”For tribes yet in time’s womb”, and “A corpse with no more quests” are especially insightful lines. And it seems to me that the shortness of trimeter lines gives a kind of dirge-like rhythm to the poem.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Cynthia! I’ve noticed that funeral chants (like In Paradisum) or songs people want to hear at funerals (like Danny Boy) are always performed with big spaces for breath after every few words. Short lines give an appropriately slow, sobbing rhythm even when the words are fluently connected. And my singers here (the wailing women) have the duty of creating a proper emotional atmosphere, so they draw out feelings to express on behalf of all the mourners. In patriarchal times, they would not have been professionals, but Abraham’s large household surely included enough who would do the job based on personal love for Sarah.

      Reply
  2. Brian A Yapko

    Margaret, this is an extraordinary poem which not only expands upon the Old Testament story of Sarah’s death but which conveys a real sense of period and authenticity. The care and research that you put into this dirge shows in both content and in the fascinating form that you have selected. You are never random in your selection of stanza length and there is often a numerological significance to it. Here you have stanzas of 4,9,10,5,7,8,8,6,10,10. I’m sure there must be order to this and would greatly appreciate your explanation of the thought that went into it.

    It is easier for me to analyze the iambic tetrameter in couplets which, as Cynthia points out, does indeed create a dirge-like, haunting quality. I especially like the use of couplets here because that gives the poem a classical, ancient quality that perfectly suits the subject.

    The language and imagery you use is exquisitely biblical and, but for the foreshadowing of Christ’s precious blood in the last stanza, feels authentically and traditionally Jewish from the title (the “wailing women” refers, I believe to the professional mourners who were a staple in ancient cultures) through all the imagery of the piece, including the references to Isaac, milk & honey, the matriarch, the covenant, the tribes in time’s womb… It all comes together quite wonderfully.

    One of the most important things in this poem is its demonstration of reverence for the dead – something with which traditional Judaism and Christianity are both deeply infused. We certainly hope that Sarah’s ghost has been led away by angels and I believe we are led to the idea of resurrection in that last stanza where “bones are kept to dry in hope to purify remains of guilt until most precious blood can spill thereon and make them live new life…” (Incidentally, Sarah’s bones are still venerated in Sarah’s Tomb at the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, Israel, along with the tombs of the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs (minus Rachel.)

    The language you use is not the language of a someday-meeting in heaven. This is language which (if I’m not mistaken) embraces the concept of bodily resurrection of that “dear clay.” The respect that the body is given by the mourners, the family, etc. is rather different from the more casual way death is viewed in the modern world where cremation, cryogenic freeze, composting of human remains, etc. all suggest that regarding the body as holy has been either diminished or altogether discarded. The reverence presented in your poem does much to rebut this trend.

    Wonderful work, Margaret!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Brian, for such an appreciative comment. There is much to reply to, and I may do so in more than one box. First I’d like to say I believe everything in the poem could have been spoken by women from Abraham’s household. They would have heard about God’s promises. They had seen an important one fulfilled in the birth of Isaac when Sarah was too old to have a child. We have no conclusive written evidence for patriarchal belief in resurrection of the dead, but we know it was present in Judaism before Christ. There must have been some hope (wishful thinking, at least) in the earliest times. You notice a foreshadowing of Christ’s precious blood as the means by which this will occur. Abraham’s womenfolk would have understood the Biblical idea that blood is life. They would have known of animal sacrifice in which the blood (more precious than ordinary blood because it is being offered to God) would have been poured or sprinkled on things–but they would understand from experience that this blood did not bring things to life. That would only be possible for the MOST precious of blood. They can’t say where to find it, but they are sure their God could restore life with it when He chose to make use of it!

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Concerning the stanza form, I needed short lines (explained to Cynthia above), but wanted a long poem. There is plenty to say, and ancient wailing women were known to carry on for a long time. Still, they probably did spend much of the time loudly wailing without words. Short stanzas provide spaces where I invite readers to imagine wails between words! But I didn’t use stanzas of regular length; the breaks occur wherever a thought process seems complete. Four lines is the minimum, and I chose ten as the maximum the singers might get through before being overcome by grief again. To suggest the natural irregularity of this, I used stanzas with all numbers of lines from four to ten in irregular arrangement, even though stanzas with odd numbers of lines involve a break in rhyming (again, this would be natural at grief-stricken moments). The total number of lines is 77, or 70 + 7, using the Hebrew number of completeness to signal the poem’s end, as does the ten-stanza total in another way.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Brian, I’ve commented further about reverence for the dead a little below James Sale’s comment, because I mentioned to him some other poems on burial. Thank you for bringing up the topic!

      Reply
  3. Sally Cook

    Somber, restrained — What Sarah deserved. Thanks for honoring her in this way. A very fine poem.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Sally, for noticing the somberness here. One of the points of the poem is that grief at death is natural, and even though I allude to hopeful promises for the future, that has to be the case. I chose to honor Sarah because her burial is the most important one in the Old Testament. Despite deaths and murders beforehand, the Bible first mentions burial when God promises it to Abraham in Genesis 15, along with the promise of land and progeny. He is ultimately buried with Sarah, but she is the one for whom and through whom the promises of land, progeny, and burial are fulfilled. We see by her example that burial of the dead is the practice God expected His people to follow. It bestows honor on the body of the deceased, who in turn honors those who perform the rites, as I have my wailing women say, in accord with Jewish tradition.

      Reply
  4. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Margaret, this is simply a beautiful poem in retrospective celebration of the one destined to be a matriarch of the Israelites. The attention to and knowledge of detail is exquisite.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you so much, Roy! I did encourage the wailing women to look forward as well as back. In view of fulfilled promises, we can see ahead yet further than they, to Sarah as grandmother of Israel, and ultimately as ancestress of Our Lord. The Bible focuses very much on the burial plot, and as Brian Yapko noted above, the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs is still much venerated. I believe a church, which is now a mosque, was built over it (I haven’t been there). In the poem I try to give something of a glimpse of burial rites.

      Reply
  5. C.B. Anderson

    Really, Margaret, the trimeter meter really conveys the sense of a stately funeral march (ta dum ta dum ta dum, and pause …). I’ve been to more Jewish weddings than funerals, and I can’t say what sort of meter would suggest the cadence of the former, but it would have to be in accord with klezmer music. I’m buying.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, C. B., for observing how the funeral march goes. You’re quite right that the end-of-line pause is important. So is the end-of-stanza pause (see my second reply to Brian on stanza form). As I explained to Cynthia, I chose trimeter lines because in Catholic funerals, music is usually performed with heavy pauses, whatever the meter in the words. I’ve been to one Jewish funeral at a Reform temple, where I recall no music. I did hear a rabbi recommend Gregorian chant as the music most like that of the Temple destroyed in Jerusalem. Acts 6:7 records a “great multitude” of Jewish priests being converted, so it’s rational to think these knowledgeable persons influenced ancient Christian sacred music. All the klezmer music I’ve heard is too lively to be funereal, but I imagine it is modulated for the occasion. I know liturgical melodies form part of the klezmer repertoire.

      Reply
  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    The poem makes me think of Ezekiel, and the question “Son of Man, can these bones live?” Both in the scripture and in this poem, the answer is definitely positive.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Yes, I too was thinking of that vision in Ezekiel. The prophet hears a great commotion as the bones join themselves back together, then receive flesh and breath. A similar question comes from God to Abraham in Genesis 18. He (and Sarah concealed in the tent) doubt God’s promise of a son for them in their old age, and they are asked, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Their visitor says He will return in a year to see the son, which means He trusted them to believe and do their part.

      Reply
  7. Monika Cooper

    The meter and rhyme here make me think of Puritan primers, hornbook verse, rebus Bibles. The picture matches the mood.

    I love the “comb and veil” line. Something bridal about that.

    I love the realism about death coupled with total respect for the dead. The “reverent manly groans”: the recognition that public tears, far from being unmanly, when occasion calls for them are an essential sign of full and glorious manhood.

    The bones drying, in a kind of sand baptism: a very consoling image. And the surrender of the flesh, its remains, in trust, and in hope of a better resurrection. It’s a wonderful poem.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Monika. The “comb and veil” line is meant to show the wailing women preparing Sarah’s body for burial. In later time periods, professional mourners would not have done that, but I want these women to be seen as devoted members of her household, who would have done everything for her and known everything about her.

      I made a point of having the word “manly” there to emphasize that men join with women in outward expression of grief. I think you are right that tears, when called for, show “full and glorious manhood.” The rest of the stanza has them all join in the “dismal fast” of the funeral day, followed as night falls by the “cup of comfort” they drink together. This may still be a custom for family at Orthodox Jewish funerals.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the poem as a presentation of how the burial rite, conscious of the reality of death and grief, can express trust in God and hope for resurrection.

      Reply
  8. James Sale

    This is a lovely poem and you have enlarged upon the Hebrew story beautifully – for they were so brilliant at depicting the sorrow we all must share. I am not sure whether you saw it or not on these pages but my own poem, The First Funeral, was inspired by LE Barrias’ sculpture and Evan reproduces it: the death of Abel: https://classicalpoets.org/2017/12/26/the-first-funeral-and-other-poetry-by-james-sale/ In reading your poem I am reminded of that wonderful Jewish expression that God is ‘mighty to raise the dead’.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, James. I have placed a 2023 comment on your 2017 poem! I made my SCP debut in 2018 but did not read regularly until the beginning of 2020, and therefore missed your wonder-full “First Funeral.” Very glad to know of it, in part because “Song of the Wailing Women” was written in view of two more recent burial poems, Shaun Duncan’s “Elegy for an Unremarkable Man” and Jeffrey Essmann’s “Eulogy for a Them.” Duncan cremated his unremarkable man, and Essmann composted his “them.” By way of contrast, I wanted to take a long look at burial that refrains from destroying the body, and does as much as humanly possible to honor and preserve it, while acknowledging the workings of nature and God. As I think I said in an earlier comment, the burial of Sarah is the first described in the Bible, but mostly in context of obtaining the burial place. I have enlarged upon the Hebrew story in view of later customs and patriarchal possibilities. Found it most intriguing that the burial story is so closely linked to several divine promises. Bringing in the promises makes it the major narrative (before that of Christ’s own burial) that we can see as a pattern to be followed in future dispositions of the body of a deceased person. I’m glad you find the poem worth reading and comparing to your own.

      Reply
  9. Margaret Coats

    This is intended particularly for Brian Yapko or James Sale or anyone interested in how “Song of the Wailing Women” supports traditional burial. It does so especially by focusing on the “most exquisite care” the living provide for the dead. The body is not left alone before it reaches its final resting place; it is specially dressed for burial; attendants express grief even for those who may not manifest sorrow outwardly. They are in charge of procession to the burial place, showing grief and affection and recognition of the dead person’s identity. They recognize the sadness of what happens in the tomb, but speak of trust in God. The funeral is considered over only at night. It was traditional to bury on the same day the death occurred. If this was not possible, there would be a “wake” with the body attended until the soul was set at rest by completion of all the rites. This developed into the Catholic practice of the body spending its last night above ground in the holy precincts of a church, before a morning burial when the time of day suggests resurrection.

    Nothing is done to destroy the body destined for resurrection; it is allowed to decompose in accord with nature, but protected in a cave or grave from desecration. Cremation is strictly forbidden in traditional Jewish or Catholic practice, as is the sort of composting that reduces the body within a few weeks to a cubic yard of soil to be donated to forest land. That is “scattering of remains” giving the sign-value that no soul is associated with them. “Green burial” is generally approved, because the body remains in its own burial place, in a biodegradable shroud or casket, returning to the earth as God disposes. The main thing is to regard the dead body as something sacred, because it was during life the holy vessel of God-given breath and a unique individual soul created by Him, or as Christians say, a temple of God the Holy Spirit.

    Reply
    • Brian A Yapko

      Thank you for these additional, informative notes, Margaret. You are correct that cremation is strictly forbidden in Jewish law. In fact, so is embalming. And the funeral and burial are supposed to take place within 24 hours of the death, which is often not viable, so it may be extended up to 3 days so that arrangements can be made and family can attend.

      Although modern reform and conservative Jews have distanced themselves from literal resurrection, traditional orthodox Judaism very much believes in the resurrection of the dead. This is especially on display at the Mount of Olives cemetery outside the (now sealed) Golden Gate in Jerusalem. This is Jewry’s largest cemetery with over 150,000 graves going back 3000 years. Jewish writings (the midrash) state that the resurrection of the dead will start on the Mount of Olives when the Messiah arrives. The risen dead will then cross Kidron Valley to the Temple Mount. Today Temple Mount is home to the Dome of the Rock. But Solomon’s Temple stood on Temple Mount until 586BC, and the Second Temple stood there until 70AD. According to Jewish tradition, a third Temple will occupy Temple Mount when the Messiah comes (Christians will, of course, see this as the Second Coming.) The bodies on the Mount of Olives are buried with their feet facing the Temple Mount so they can simply rise and walk straight ahead to the Temple.

      Reply
      • Margaret Coats

        Thanks for further fascinating information! Although embalming is done to preserve the body (at least long enough for viewing), I imagine unnatural chemical changes actually destroy it, by turning it into something else. Physical violence (cracking and grinding bones) takes place at the end of both cremation and composting, leaving burial as the gentlest way to go. The favored site for Catholic cemeteries in many parts of this country (when sacred churchyards are already full) is an east-facing slope, where the faithful are buried with feet to the east, enabling them to rise looking toward Jerusalem–except for priests, who are buried in the opposite way, so they can check on the flock as they rise!

  10. James Sale

    Thanks Margaret – I have replied to your comment on the 2017 post. No need to concern yourself about not responding to posts: I myself cannot see all the poems that are posted now, simply through time constraints! Therefore, I miss things! And I wonder how Evan not only can read – but sift, sort and edit too AND hold down a full-time job. Another miracle! Your poem is a wonderful poem and I love the subject matter which I think very under-explored in contemporary writings; and I do not wish to seem presumptuous in ‘comparing it with’ my own; it’s just that we seem to share a common fascination here. Thanks again for your kind words.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      With you, I much prefer to explore the matter by looking at significant past events, including archetypal ones like these of Abel and Sarah. There is much to discover and imagine in these accounts available to us, which can certainly provide new avenues to treat real or imagined instances now or in the future. Shaun Duncan’s lengthy elegy took off in another direction from a very traditional backdrop. Poets and persons may try to deal with death from different perspectives, but it is something all of us necessarily face. What to do, and how to do it, remain practical and artistic questions.

      Reply
  11. Shaun C. Duncan

    This is a wonderful poem, Margaret; dirge-like but extraordinarily beautiful. I have also greatly enjoyed reading your comments to others above. I find Sarah to be one of the more interesting figures to appear in Genesis, but I hadn’t realised her death marked the first appearance of burial rites in the text.

    What you have evoked here is exactly what is missing from modern, secular funeral rites and what inspired me to write my own elegy a few months ago. Sarah, being the matriarch of the Israelites, is obviously a remarkable figure but the grief expressed in your song is deeply human and immediately familiar to anyone who has lost a loved one. It’s a tragedy that our culture no longer has the rites to acknowledge this as I think it’s resulted in a society which has an extremely childish attitude toward death. On the one hand we have what John-Paul II called the “culture of death” and a general indifference to the sufferings of others, but on the other we have a population who cannot bear to contemplate their own mortality, act like teenagers well into middle age, and have no frame of reference to help them cope with that grim diagnosis which is coming sooner than they think. The beauty of such great poetry though is that your poem not only brings to mind that which we have lost but also functions as a rite of mourning in itself, giving the reader space to consider his or her own predicament and offering consolation.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks, Shaun, I did want this to offer consolation. That’s entirely appropriate because of Sarah’s role in bringing about the new life God will ultimately offer the whole world. And as you say, the poem in its varied pieces fits together as an imagined ritual the reader goes through. What’s significant about traditional funeral rites is that they make a big place for grief. Our secular “celebrations of life” have none. They fail to acknowledge a grieving family, and allow no one else a way to join in. I always find it amazing at church funerals how most people realize they must all leave together, in strict order, with the immediate family behind the casket, and everyone else following in accord with whatever seat they chanced to choose as they arrived. I hope this remaining bit of funeral procession gives many of them a sense of satisfaction at having taken part in a public ceremony to honor the deceased. Your “Elegy” outlined a crying need for that and the lack of provision for it. It can dignify our lives, however much or little we may be concerned with any particular deceased person.

      Reply

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