AN INTERNATIONAL FUNERAL
I WAS sitting in my room in Athens, reading a Greek newspaper with the social desperation of a man who two days before had said good-bye for the winter to his wife and children. A light knock at the door interrupted this inconsequential reading. It is a question for critics whether Beethoven did or did not mean, in his famous introduction to the Fifth Symphony, to describe “Fate knocking at the door.” The rap of Fate does not always come with unvarying rhythm and authority. Fate is not always stern, cold or cruel, but may be gently insistent and kindly inevitable. The sternest events in life often come to us through the mildest announcements. How many times had I heard just such a low knock at my door at home, with its summons to sympathy and ministration ! I had travelled more than once five hundred miles to answer it. I did not expect to hear – it in Greece or imagine that it would mean a journey almost as long. When I had thought of going to Eubcea, it was to see the supposed tomb of Aristotle and the theatre of Eretria. I did not think of going to a new-made grave.
More than fifty years ago a French gentleman of fortune, Baron Mimont, bought a large estate in the northern part of Eubcea. He counted it part of his pleasure in life to spend some months there every year. He had done much to develop and beautify it. It had become another home to him, hardly second in his affections to his beloved France. He was suddenly overtaken by sickness, and his two sons were summoned from Paris. They came as fast as train and steamer and one day of quarantine would permit, but the death angel moved faster, and when they reached Athens they received tidings of their father’s death. It was a friendly guide conducting these two gentlemen who had knocked at my door. They explained that their father was a devout French Protestant; he had wished to be buried in his beloved Eubcea. There was not a Protestant minister on the island; would I, an American, go with them and conduct the service? In such an hour language, distance, nationality, all give way to fraternity. These gentlemen immediately won my interest, respect and brotherly sympathy. Their request meant a round trip by water of over four hundred miles, two possible fits of seasickness, both of which were realized, the absence of three and a half days from Athens, and the interruption of regular work. But it did not take me three minutes to answer ” Yes.”
It was then three o’clock. It was arranged that Messieurs Mimont should call two hours later and we should drive to the Piraeus together. I packed my bag, wrote a few cards postponing engagements, called on Dr. Manatt, the United States Consul, who held all Americans in Athens in his fraternal and patriotic keeping, and at half-past five was in the carriage on my way to the Piraeus, a five-mile drive from Athens. There we were joined by a captain of the French army attached to the Legation at Athens, who in the unavoidable absence of the Minister represented the French Republic.
There was premonitory mischief in the fresh breeze. It soon became fairly wicked in its sport with the sea, until it had aroused that sensitive element into ungovernable fury. The waves rioted in the Saronic Gulf. It was a relief to get into the strait the next day, where the wind had little scope for its exercise.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon when, after stopping at Karystos, Alivari, and Chalcis, we reached the village of Aidipsos in the northern part of the island. Seven saddle horses (three for attendants) and a wagon for the luggage awaited us. We mounted and rode for half an hour to a point where the roads were smooth enough for carriages. From the attendants we learned the particulars of the death of Baron Mimont. An hour later we reached the chateau in Xerochori. A few soldiers were in the yard. In the house were the demarch, the chief of police, various local officials, and the village priest. On the death of Baron Mimont the morning before, the safe had been sealed and various official precautions taken for the security of property. There was an exchange of formalities and the reading of documents to discharge the town from responsibility. Then the officials shook hands with us all and bowed themselves out.
Baron Mimont’s extensive property of I know not how many thousands of acres, yields large returns of grapes, olives, grain, tobacco and other crops.
To work it a large force of Greek laborers was necessary. So there had grown up on the estate two little villages, St. Jean and St. Theodore, with forty-five families housed in stone cottages, and a small Greek church whose priest was also teacher. Many of these families had been reared on the place and looked to Monsieur Mimont as their friend and protector as well as employer. To them the death of their venerable patron was a personal bereavement. It was therefore arranged to have one service in the death-chamber in the homestead for the family and near friends, and one at the grave to which all might come.
I have held funeral services under circumstances both peculiar and tragic, but this one lay far out of the range of all previous experience. The sons had been trained to English from infancy, but were the only ones present who understood that tongue. The housekeeper, the intendant and some of the village officials understood French. The priest and his flock knew only Greek. The situation was certainly peculiar : the funeral of a French Protestant in a Greek community, on Greek soil, conducted by an American. I went to the service with a French Bible, an English Bible, and the New Testament in the old Greek.
The service in the upper room was simple. The two brothers, the only survivors in the family,the attache of the French Legation in brilliant uniform, the gendarme also in full uniform, the village priest, the faithful maid, the mayor of Xerochori and a few others were in the chamber. A selection from the Psalms in English was followed by a selection from the New Testament in French, and a prayer in English.
The casket was then carried out and the funeral procession formed. Two Greeks bearing lighted candles led the way, the candles burning pale in the brilliant sun. The gendarme followed, bearing a cushion on which was a symbol of authority; four soldiers marched behind him ; and four Greeks dressed in their native costume the short white skirt, or fustanella bore the casket. The two chief mourners followed ; and then the French captain and myself. Behind us were the Greek priest, the de-march, and a long procession of men, women and children from the villages. There was no music, no cadence step, and no wailing, save the sobs of the faithful housekeeper. I had seen Greek funerals before, and the sight from the standpoint of spectator would not have seemed strange; but to be moving in the procession to conduct the service was an unusual and memorable experience.
Monsieur Mimont was a lover of trees. He had planted many of varied hue and habit with his own hands,trees not found elsewhere on the island. In a beautiful grove, at the end of a gentle slope, not far from the calm waters of the bay, he had chosen the place for his grave. One could hardly dream of a more beautiful spot. I shall never forget the lovely panorama that lay before us as we slowly marched down the knoll. In the foreground were plane-trees, poplars, weeping-willows, fig-trees and olives, some of bright green, some of dark green, and others of yellow leafage, spreading over the wide slope which gently descended to the calm blue bay. Here were peace and beauty. Across the gulf was the eternal grandeur of the mountains. There rose Parnassus eight thousand feet above the sea; its peaks, whitened with snow, loomed up amid a grand chorus of dark hills. There were the snow-capped ridges of Olympus, nearly ten thousand feet high. The deep Bay of Volo opened at the north at the foot of Pelion. Calm, beautiful, grand was the scene in this soft air lighted by the brilliant sun and with a white cortege of clouds in the blue sky.
The casket was lowered to its resting-place. The crowd became hushed as I read a few passages in English from the New Testament followed by the Twenty-Third Psalm in French. I could not bear the thought that these Greeks should be left out of my ministration and listen to a service which was wholly unintelligible; so I had risen at four o’clock in the morning and had written out and committed a brief and simple address in modern Greek, which connected some selections from the Greek New Testament:
” God is good, and we are all his children. Saint Paul, when he spoke upon the Areopagus, said, ` God hath made of one blood all the nations of the earth.’ Today there are representatives here of three nations. We are Greeks, French and American; but we are all brothers.” (There were nods of assent.) “We speak three languages Greek, French, English; but there is only one language of the heart. The language of the heart is the language of love; and Saint Paul has said, ‘ Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.”‘ Selections in Greek from the rest of that beautiful chapter, the Thirteenth of First Corinthians, followed. Returning thanks to the friends and the faithful servant, I concluded my part of the service with the Lord’s Prayer in Greek.
The sweet-faced priest then swung his censer over the grave, and recited a few passages from the Greek service for the dead, another priest at the other end of the grave gave the responses, and the people joined in the benedictions. It was a brief service, but cheerful and triumphant in its tone. As we moved away from the grave slowly but without formality, I took the arm of the lovable priest and asked him in Greek if he understood what I had read. Then opening his liturgy he showed me the Lord’s Prayer in the same Greek, turned a few pages to the exquisite Corinthian chap-ter, and putting his finger on the closing verse’ And now abideth faith, hope, love, but the greatest of these is love,’ said, Beautiful, beautiful.”
Then I felt that the barrier of language had indeed been broken down and that priest and people had felt with me the ties of brotherhood and human sympathy which bound us all together. It was significant that the three nations there represented,Greece, France, and America, had all stood for liberty, equality, fraternity. And it was deeply interesting that the great apostle in his famous chapter to the Greeks of Corinth and in his address to the Athenians on the Areopagus had furnished in the Greek tongue a bond of sentiment and union which made us feel at that grave that God had made of one blood all the nations of the earth, and that hope and faith, and above all love, are the supreme things in the world.