‘At My Father’s Funeral’, by John Burnside

The idea that the body as well as the soul was immortal was probably linked on to a very primitive belief regarding the dead, and one shared by many peoples, that they lived on in the grave. This conception was never forgotten, even in regions where the theory of a distant land of the dead was evolved, or where the body was consumed by fire before burial. It appears from such practices as binding the dead with cords, or laying heavy stones or a mound of earth on the grave, probably to prevent their egress, or feeding the dead with sacrificial food at the grave, or from the belief that the dead come forth not as spirits, but in the body from the grave. – J.A. MacCulloch, The Religion of the Ancient Celts.

We wanted to seal his mouth
with a handful of clay,
to cover his eyes
with the ash of the last

bonfire he made
at the rainiest edge
of the garden

and didn’t we think, for a moment,
of crushing his feet
so he couldn’t return to the house
at Halloween,

to stand at the window,
smoking and peering in,
the look on his face

like that flaw in the sway of the world
where mastery fails
and a hinge in the mind
swings open – grief

or terror coming loose
and drifting, like a leaf,
into the flames.

[Source: London Review of Books 34 No. 2 (26 January 2012), 18]

One thought on “‘At My Father’s Funeral’, by John Burnside

  1. This poem is unsettling – like grief and terror.

    I can remember as a girl walking to school (it was deemed safe for kids to walk to school in those days!) and I used to pass a house with a rather ricketty fence. Inside that yard was a bulldog which made a lot of noise as I passed. So I’d cross to the other side of the street and walk quickly looking straight ahead.

    Like

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