In The Midst of Life we are in Death

I handed in my PhD yesterday, which was to lift a huge weight from my shoulders. 4 years work! My mind free, I packed my camera and wandered down to Edgerton Cemetery. The monuments were coated in a light frost. The air was crisp and still. I stood for a moment and could hear all the little sounds. A robin flitted from headstone to headstone, and watched me from the top of a stone wall.  I could hear the thrum brum of its wings. A rabbit bounced along between the statues – bump… b…bump… b… bump.

An angel looked down on me. An epiphany:


A fog was hanging still in the air, and freezing. It was nice. Tranquil. I couldn’t see far through the fog, so I came across the monuments bit by bit, not knowing what was ahead. There is quite a range of monuments at Edgerton. Tall obelisks, crosses, an occasional angel, and some very beautiful and decorative headstones. As I wandered, I read the inscriptions on the headstones. ‘In The Midst of Life we are in Death’ took my breath:

In The Midst

It seems such a contrast. There’s an easy poetry to it, yet the sense is that death pervades life. I didn’t think about it at the time. It just struck me, and sort of dumbfounded me. It seemed strangely beautiful. The words sound easy, but the meaning is hard. The setting is also that contrast between art and death – the leaves, the ribbon, on a headstone, in a cemetery, a body underneath.

I Googled the text later. It’s from The Book of Common Prayer, and is followed by THE line:

“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

The finality of that!

I don’t know enough about rhythm and poetry to understand how those lines work. I have taught and marked GSCE English Literature, and one thing students comment on over and over again is the rule of threes. I can appreciate that. If the line ended with ashes to ashes, it would feel incomplete. If it went past dust to dust it would feel overblown. I don’t understand why threes feel right though. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe it’s hard wired?!

The first line on its own seems really commonplace on headstones. It still shocks me:

In the Midst 2

I might become a wanderer of cemeteries. They are such peaceful places, and beautiful too.

One thing that struck me in the cemetery is that there are times when I love being on my own. To just wander around on my own with my camera!  It’s one thing that brings everything together.


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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4 Responses to In The Midst of Life we are in Death

  1. Beautiful photos!
    To me, this saying is the inverse of, “In the midst of death, we are in life.” It speaks to me of a Buddhist notion of the cycle of life: death is part of that cycle. When I experienced the death of someone very dear to me, after a period of grieving within a sense of aloneness, I felt very grounded in life.
    That is to say, through my sense of loss and the experience of the transience of life, I was brought to the present moment, within my own life. I had a context; I was more able to fully value my own life.

  2. Pingback: Saddleworth Moor | rjheeks

  3. Rumila says:

    for me this has been the frightening indication of imminent loss. I didn’t know it was from the Book of Common Prayer…I came across it in a discussion of Pastoral poetry. It sent a chill down my spine. Everything now seems more precious than I ever thought it would be.

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