I have described the peculiar ceremony attending the burial of youth in Mizora. Old age, in some respects, had a similar ceremony, but the funeral of an aged person differed greatly from what I had witnessed at the grave of youth. Wauna and I attended the funeral of a very aged lady. Death in Mizora was the gradual failing of mental and physical vigor. It came slowly, and unaccompanied with pain. It was received without regret, and witnessed without tears.
The daughters performed the last labor that the mother required. They arrayed her body for burial and bore it to the grave. If in that season of the year, autumn leaves hid the bier, and formed the covering and pillow of her narrow bed. If not in the fall, full-blown roses and matured flowers were substituted.
The ceremony was conducted by the eldest daughter, assisted by the others. No tears were shed; no mourning worn; no sorrowful chanting. A solemn dirge was sung indicative of decay. A dignified solemnity befitting the farewell to a useful life was manifest in all the proceedings; but no demonstrations of sorrow were visible. The mourners were unveiled, and performed the last services for their mother with calmness. I was so astonished at the absence of mourning that I asked an explanation of Wauna.
“Why should we mourn,” was the surprising answer, “for what is inevitable? Death must come, and, in this instance, it came in its natural way. There is nothing to be regretted or mourned over, as there was in the drowning of my young friend. Her life was suddenly arrested while yet in the promise of its fruitfulness. There was cause for grief, and the expressions and emblems of mourning were proper and appropriate. But here, mourning would be out of place, for life has fulfilled its promises. Its work is done, and nature has given the worn-out body rest. That is all.”
That sympathy and regret which the city had expressed for the young dead was manifested only in decorum and respectful attendance at the funeral. No one appeared to feel that it was an occasion for mourning. How strange it all seemed to me, and yet there was a philosophy about it that I could not help but admire. Only I wished that they believed as I did, that all of those tender associations would be resumed beyond the grave. If only they could be convinced. I again broached the subject to Wauna. I could not relinquish the hope of converting her to my belief. She was so beautiful, so pure, and I loved her so dearly. I could not give up my hope of an eternal reunion. I appealed to her sympathy.
“What hope,” I asked, “can you offer those whose lives have been only successive phases of unhappiness? Why should beings be created only to live a life of suffering, and then die, as many, very many, of my people do? If they had no hope of a spiritual life, where pain and sorrow are to be unknown, the burdens of this life could not be borne.”
“You have the same consolation,” replied Wauna, “as the Preceptress had in losing her daughter. That daring spirit that cost her her life, was the pride of her mother. She possessed a promising intellect, yet her mother accepts her death as one of the sorrowful phases of life, and bravely tries to subdue its pain. Long ages behind us, as my mother has told you, the history of all human life was but a succession of woes. Our own happy state has been evolved by slow degrees out of that sorrowful past. Human progress is marked by blood and tears, and the heart’s bitterest anguish. We, as a people, have progressed almost beyond the reach of sorrow, but you are in the midst of it. You must work for the future, though you cannot be of it.”
“I cannot,” I declared, “reconcile myself to your belief. I am separated from my child. To think I am never to see it in this world, nor through endless ages, would drive me insane with despair. What consolation can your belief offer me?”
“In this life, you may yearn for your child, but after this life you sleep,” answered Wauna, sententiously. “And how sweet that sleep! No dreams; no waking to work and trial; no striving after perfection; no planning for the morrow. It is oblivion than which there can be no happier heaven.”
“Would not meeting with those you have loved be happier?” I asked, in amazement.
“There would be happiness; and there would be work, too.”
“But my religion does not believe in work in heaven,” I answered.
“Then it has not taken the immutable laws of Nature into consideration,” said Wauna. “If Nature has prepared a conscious existence for us after this body decays, she has prepared work for us, you may rest assured. It might be a grander, nobler work; but it would be work, nevertheless. Then, how restful, in contrast, is our religion. It is eternal, undisturbable rest for both body and brain. Besides, as you say yourself, you cannot be sure of meeting those whom you desire to meet in that other country. They may be the ones condemned to eternal suffering for their sins. Think you I could enjoy myself in any surroundings, when I knew that those who were dear to me in this life, were enduring torment that could have no end. Give me oblivion rather than such a heaven.
“Our punishment comes in this world; but it is not so much through sin as ignorance. The savages lived lives of misery, occasioned by their lack of intelligence. Humanity must always suffer for the mistakes it makes. Misery belongs to the ignorant; happiness to the wise. That is our doctrine of reward and punishment.”
“And you believe that my people will one day reject all religions?”
“When they are advanced enough,” she answered. “You say you have scholars among you already, who preach their inconsistencies. What do you call them?”
“Philosophers,” was my reply.
“They are your prophets,” said Wauna. “When they break the shackles that bind you to creeds and dogmas, they will have done much to advance you. To rely on one’s own will power to do right is the only safe road to morality, and your only heaven.”
I left Wauna and sought a secluded spot by the river. I was shocked beyond measure at her confession. It had the earnestness, and, to me, the cruelty of conviction. To live without a spiritual future in anticipation was akin to depravity, to crime and its penalty of prison life forever. Yet here was a people, noble, exalted beyond my conceiving, living in the present, and obeying only a duty to posterity. I recalled a painting I had once seen that always possessed for me a horrible fascination. In a cave, with his foot upon the corpse of a youth, sat the crowned and sceptered majesty of Death. The waters of oblivion encompassed the throne and corpse, which lay with its head and feet bathed in its waters — for out of the Unknown had life come, and to the Unknown had it departed. Before me, in vision, swept the mighty stream of human life from which I had been swept to these strange shores. All its sufferings, its delusions; its baffled struggles; its wrongs, came upon me with a sense of spiritual agony in them that religion — my religion, which was their only consolation — must vanish in the crucible of Science. And that Science was the magician that was to purify and exalt the world. To live in the Present; to die in it and become as the dust; a mere speck, a flash of activity in the far, limitless expanse of Nature, of Force, of Matter in which a spiritual ideal had no part. It was horrible to think of. The prejudices of inherited religious faith, the contracted forces of thought in which I had been born and reared could not be uprooted or expanded without pain.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57