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If I Should Die
Church hymns from the past reflect the tenuous nature of life and inevitability of death while today's are emasculated, sanitized and jollied up.


It is one of the most poignant things you'll ever see: a tiny gravestone with a lamb, nestled beside a larger tombstone bearing a young woman's name. Pioneer graveyards provide stark proof of the risk—even as late as the last century—of childbirth and infant mortality.

Even if a child survived infancy, the spectre of death was never far away.

Recently I gave birth to a healthy eight-pound baby boy, and as I held him in my arms I couldn't help but think of those babies, and of the women who had nothing to ease childbirth: no anaesthetics, epidurals, antibiotics—or sometimes doctors. To have a child was too often not a matter of life but of death. No wonder that, as his wife went into labour, Charles Wesley wrote:


Whisper to my list'ning soul
Wilt thou not my strength renew,
Nature's fears and pangs control,
And bring thy handmaid through?

Even more moving are the words from a small hymnal, Hymns for Infant Minds, published in 1868. Titles such as "The sins of a child" appear, but most heart-wrenching are ones like "Child's lamentation for the death of a dear mother:"


But since she's gone so far away,
And cannot profit by my pains,
Let me this child-like duty pay
To that dear parent who remains.

Even if a child survived infancy, the spectre of death was never far away. It flits across "To a little sister on her birthday:"


But friends, my love, how vain are they!
For one infected breath
May take the tenderest away,
And lay them low in death.

Morbid? By our standards, yes. But nineteenth-century writers were accurately reflecting the times. For them, death was natural and inevitable. In fact we don't even have to go that far back. When you were a child, did you say this prayer at bedtime?


Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Hymns tell us about a society's cultural and demographic norms as well as its theology. What will future generations learn from ours? That we were in denial about dying? That we were so put off by "blood and gore" that the cruel details of Christ's death were too disturbing to sing about? That we were so uncomfortable with death that most of our childhood favourites became a no-no?

Jesus loves me, He will stay
Close beside me all the way.
If I love Him, when I die
He will take me home on high.

is replaced in hymnbooks with:

Jesus loves me still today
Walking with me on my way,
Wanting as a friend to give
Light and love to all who live.

The advances of modern medicine have helped us avoid the subject of death. And political correctness has dictated that our hymns be emasculated, sanitized, and jollied up. Has the pendulum swung too far? We wouldn't want to return to the circumstances which produced those old hymns. But we can learn something from the strong faith of those pioneers. For them, death was not the end. In the midst of tragedy they were able to sing confidently of the paradise, which awaits all believers:


Millions of happy babes have gone
Quickly, that blessedness to see;
This world they did but look upon,
And knew not what its pains could be;
How strange!—to close their baby eyes
And open them in Paradise! (1868)

Dawn Martens is a music teacher in Hamilton, Ontario.

Originally published in the Fellowship Magazine, September 1998
fellowshipmagazine.org

 

 
 
 
 

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