Sticks and Stones
Sticks and Stones – for Jean
By Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard
I went to the funeral of a childhood friend’s father last week. And, rather unexpectedly, what I read this week helped me to put it all in a more global perspective.
The funeral was eclectic—a just reflection of the man. He was both wickedly funny and wickedly serious, a Scotsman by descent and very proud of that fact. The presiding minister at the service was of Scottish descent too, and his eulogy combined anecdotes about their witty sparring over inherited traditions as well as those of the man’s childhood, military service, and his deep-rooted love for family and community.
The moment from the service that stays with me most was the reverend’s pointed mention of an easily overlooked detail in the church bulletin. I, like most, pay little attention to the dash that separates a person’s dates. But, it is precisely that dash, that line, which represents a lifetime. It symbolizes time shared with family and friends, and the impact that one person can make in the world. Simple yet profound.
Following the funeral, the long string of cars processed to the cemetery. There, a continued celebration of the blended traditions that weave through an individual life played out. My friend’s father had been in the Air Force, and two servicemen did the honor of ritualistically folding the draped flag and then handing it to his wife at graveside.
After several verses of “Auld Lang Syne” sung by the mourners, and the final words of comfort, a friend of the family (in his kilt and full Highland regalia) played traditional Scottish music on his bagpipes. The music echoed through trees and field. It was a beautiful service that truly reflected the interwoven threads of a single life.
If he were still with us, my friend’s dad likely would have been pleased to pick up the latest (June) issue of National Geographic (as I did) and read that they are still discovering new information about the ancient people who lived and worshiped in his ancestral homeland of the British Isles. The cover article (“If the Stones Could Speak: Searching for the Meaning of Stonehenge”) relates new findings at Stonehenge in Salisbury, England. (If you’re wondering, a “henge” is an earthwork circle, like the ditch and embankment that surround the uprights at Stonehenge.) The article provides firm evidence for things long suspected — for example, the distant, Welsh origins of the mystical “healing” bluestones and megaliths that make up the sculptural part of the monument. And, it adds some new twists to the mysterious tale.
The romantically-named field archaeologist (Mike) Parker Pearson has attempted to carefully reconstruct what the surrounding local housing and domestic lifestyle looked like. He asserts that the 300-odd Neolithic houses surrounding the site make it the largest such settlement yet found in Britain: Firm evidence of its hitherto assumed cultural import.
Parker Pearson also has an astounding new interpretation of the landmark, based upon his fieldwork in Madagascar. He believes that Stonehenge was a sacred monument ritually linked to related wooden henge sites in the immediate area (such as Woodhenge and Durrington Walls). He suggests that the ancient tribes may have processed from one monument to the other, down long avenues connected to the intermediary River Avon, thus tying the monuments together in an axial fashion.
He believes that—like the Malagasy culture of Madagascar—the ancient Britons revered deceased ancestors with stone monuments, while celebrating life with nearby wooden ones. According to this plausible theory, across human cultures sacred stone is “ancestral and male,” representing the passage of the body into hard bone, while sacred wood is “transient and female,” representing birth and growth. Though there is currently no local evidence for this theory, Stonehenge is indeed ringed by burials. And, as Parker Pearson notes in the article, today in the West we perform a similar ritual by placing flowers on a grave, later to be replaced by a headstone.
Linked together with its nearby sites, therefore, Stonehenge seems to have been a physical marker of the symbolic ties between the beginning and end of life for ancient people—the comforting, liminal parentheses around the dash. No doubt in their rituals those ancient celebrants also played their pipes, sang and reflected upon memories shared with their loved ones.
The timeless human need to cope with life-transitions through ritual thus reaches across the millennia, changed, but still known to us today.
Kimberlee A. Cloutier-Blazzard, Ph.D., is a senior contributing writer & contributing editor of Bread and Circus Magazine and an Independent Scholar of Art History, Specializing in Northern Renaissance and Baroque. Click here to send her email.