Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Sebastien Japrisot, A Very Long Engagement, 1991

 Translated by Linda Coverdale

Death of French Soldiers

Death of French Soldiers:

The soldiers from Newfoundland arrived at no-man’s-land in front of the trench called Byng’s Man at ten o’clock, when a pale sun was finally breaking through the overcast sky and all the cannons, for a moment, had fallen silent.

It had snowed while they tramped through the trenches. Their coats were soaked, and they were cold. As he labored through the snow, each man dragged along with him the frosty cloud of his breath, and his troubles, and his fears, and the memories of the loved ones he might never see again. There were ten of them in all, led by a sergeant who was a good fellow, a trapper in frozen wastes even more vast and silent than these, in a far-off country where he battled only bears and wolves.

While three of them climbed down into Bingo, which had been heavily damaged by shells, three others set off on a reconnaissance of the German trench. Those who were left explored no-man’s-land, where they found the scattered bodies of five French soldiers.

The first man they saw was kneeling in a hole, with his eyes open, and beneath the light covering of snow clinging to him, he seemed like a statue at prayer. Another soldier, very young, the only one who was not wounded in the hand, the only one who still wore his regimental number and his insignia on his collar, had fallen over backward, his chest torn apart by a piece of shrapnel, an expression of deliverance on his face.

The sergeant was outraged by the barbarity of the enemy soldiers, who had robbed the poor dead men of everything, taking home souvenirs to show off in front of their Frauleins. He told those with him that every man who dies with his shoes on deserves a decent burial, that they couldn’t bury every soldier who fell on the field of battle, but that they were going to bury these men here because the one on his knees was begging them to, and that if they didn’t it would surely bring them bad luck.

So they went to this trouble, those soldiers from Newfoundland, on one cold morning among so many others in the war. Their patrol leader was Richard Bonnaventure, who had explored the Frozen North and hunted with the Eskimos, like the man he pitied, although he had no way of knowing this.

They gathered the bodies and laid them down together in a shell crater, they read the names on their identification tags, and the sergeant wrote them down, one by one, in his notebook.

And then they found a tarp in the enemy trench, good solid canvas, and they laid it over the dead men, and they unfolded the shafts of their shovels, and all together, they filled in the hole, quickly, for the cannons had come to life again, to the east and west, like a long drum-roll calling them back to the war.

Before they marched off, Dick Bonnaventure had one of his men empty the contents of a red tobacco tin into his pocket and hand over the box. He shoved it three-quarters of the way into the earth, after enclosing within a message addressed to whoever should find the grave, a page torn from his notebook on which he had written in pencil, as best he could, resting the paper on his knee:

Here lie
Five French soldiers,
Who died with their shoes on,
Chasing the wind,

The name of the place,

Where the roses fade,

And a date,

a long time ago.





Adrienne Nater, 2008

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