Sunday, 13 November 2016

Closed Curtains, Open Doors

When WW1 broke out, the young men who went off to fight had all been born in the 19th Century, in the reign of Queen Victoria. She had raised "Mourning" to a high art, shutting herself away after the death of her beloved Albert. Many of the customs surrounding death came from that time. One was that if somebody in a household died, the curtains remained closed, even during the day. 
I remember talking to a very elderly lady when we lived in Leicestershire. She told me that one morning in 1916 she was walking along Fosse Road to school with her mother, and every house seemed to have closed curtains. Her mother explained that all these families had lost a father, husband, brother or son on the battlefields of the Somme. The whole street was bereft.
Liz once told me that Victorians were fond of putting an open door on memorials, to indicate that the person who had 'passed to the other side' was young, and had gone too soon. This has been used at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire on the big memorial at the top of the hill [Prince Harry was there on Friday]

Beside the statues of a dying man and the stretcher bearers,you see a young man going through the door in the wall.
There are two remarkable things about this sculpture- 
The first - on the other side of the wall, are listed all the names of the men and women from British Forces who have died in combat since the end of WW2. 
The second - the positioning of the open door means that at 11am on 11th November, every year, the rays of the sun shine in a straight line through onto the centre of the cenotaph in the centre of the memorial.
It is an amazing, and moving thing to see. Here is my photo, taken on 15th November 2009. Not quite in the centre anymore, but the rays still shine on the poppy wreaths laid a few days before.
As I stood on Friday in Ferndown, with the British Legion, marking the 2 minutes silence, I was even more conscious than usual of the words "They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old" - those young people never came home again... to live in freedom, to study, to work, to marry, have children, become grandparents...blessings too easily taken for granted. Opportunities, futures, hopes and dreams all lost in an instant, gone with the wind. No wonder a mothers and widows closed the curtains, to block out the light - they had lost the light of their lives. 
There are no words to give comfort to the newly bereaved- grieving is a hard process and it takes time. But even if the pain never goes away, it lessens, and there are moments in between the sadness when life can be good again. And knowing that nothing can separate us from God's love - neither life nor death nor anything in all creation - that faith can bring true peace to our hearts in a war-torn world.
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.


  1. At the end of January 1965 a lady died a few doors down from us. On the day of the funeral my mother drew the living room curtains out of respect. Although I was only 6 years old it can be sure of the date because it was when Winston Churchill died and in my child's mind I conflated the two events and believed it was Churchill's coffin in the hearst that passed by.

  2. At our remembrance service in school on Friday they talked about a boy who had been twelve. Died in war at twelve. That's how old my Jo is. And he too would have been quite gung-ho enough to take himself off into the pro patria mori.Renders one speechless.


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