DOWN TO THE DUST

ONE OF THE MOST VIVID memories I’ve carried across the years is that of the Funeral of Grace Perigo, a teacher of Classics. My fellow students and I were practiced over and over to sing the Russian Kontakion for the Departed. Neither the words, nor the music, nor the solemnity of that funeral 35 years ago have left me.

And just this week I’ve been reading in Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria, published on the 1st March, his account of a similar funeral, on this occasion that of a fellow student, during the years of his own formation at Kelham House.

Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints: where sorrow and pain are no more; neither sighing but life everlasting. Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of man: and we are mortal formed from the dust of the earth, and unto earth shall we return: for so thou didst ordain, when thou created me saying: “Dust thou art und unto dust shalt thou return.” All we go down to the dust; and weeping o’er the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Sky News reports this lunchtime on the desecration by Libyan militants of more than 150 graves of British Servicemen killed during the Second World War. “Headstones at the Benghazi war cemetery were pulled down, with crucifixes destroyed by vandals … the Foreign Office says it believes the attack was carried out by a group of Salafist jihadists, a hardline branch of Islam, because Muslim graves were also desecrated.”

The desecration of a grave, any grave, is absolutely unacceptable. Civilised people of all faiths and none are in agreement about that. But this particular tragic occasion has given rise to an immensely important official statement by the Libyan National Transitional Council  – apologising to all Christians for the destruction of the cemeteries – that I hope and pray will not be overlooked in the immediate revulsion upon hearing / seeing news of these dreadful acts:

“These actions are the personal actions of specific individuals and do not reflect the views of the National Transitional Council and are nothing to do with the Islamic Faith. We are Muslims, we know that our God created us from the earth and we will go back to the earth, so all souls belong to God. Once again, we hope that the Christian community worldwide can accept our apology for what has happened”, the statement read.

I thank God for the very great grace and goodness in this statement and apology. And particularly for the grace-filled assertion: Muslims … know that our God created us from the earth and we will go back to the earth, so all souls belong to God.

For Christians, too, know that we go down into the dust; and weeping oe’r the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Let us apologise to one another, daily: Muslims, Christians, those of “other faiths” and none, for the countless acts of desecration we wreak upon one another, upon lives and not just upon graves. Because all souls belong to God. And I cannot see that God would have it any other way. So weeping o’er our graves and in the midst of our torn and bewildered lives, let us live and sing Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!