The Pot of Basil

The Pot of Basil

Will Elsin

No worst, there is none,
Pitched past pitch of grief
- (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

One of my long-prized possessions is a vinyl album which I purchased in Sydney in the early 1980s. On each side of the sleeve of You are the Reason a youthful Karen Knowles sweetly peers at you. Included in the album is the song, 'The Rose', beloved of many.

Good friends (Protestants) and truly one of the gentlest and kindest couples deigned to be placed by the good Lord on this earth had two sons. One had but turned twenty-one when he was tragically killed in a motor accident. At his funeral, the obsequies concluded with a rendering of the hauntingly beautiful, 'The Rose' - it is a moment you don't forget. Some may see it as an 'unspiritual' song. Really?

'The Rose' was composed by US singer and song-writer with a mellifluent voice, Amanda McBroom, and it is on her Dreaming CD. (In our strange, dumbed-down, often cruel world it's probably little wonder she is not better known and recognised).

Audiophiles and other aesthetes are known to appreciate her records for the emotion and transparency of the presentation, the closely interwoven poetic Iyricism of the words, the masterful backing arrangements and truly outstanding audio quality. (Note: Both Dreaming and Midnight Matinee, from which the under-mentioned lyrics are taken, and produced by Gecko records in California, are secular, not religious, albums).

Among the more curious and darker of Amanda's songs is the disturbing-in-every-way, you-figure-it out, 'Baby (in a box on the sand)', which appears to refer to a baby abandoned on the beach by a drug-overwhelmed mother. As part of human tragedy and possibly somewhat fancifully, the song nevertheless brings to mind two remarkably similar modern episodes, the second over Christmas in 2007.

Some years ago, my sister had a friend who faced the trauma of having her baby die in utero. The baby had been dead for two weeks when they induced the birth, which they do in such cases. This was the mother's first child. Imagine the trauma she experienced at bearing it close to term, and then facing the prospect of having to give birth to an inanimate body, rather than have the tactile joy of a live baby.

Then, over that penultimate Christmas (2007), my niece in an adjacent country (who sadly no longer regards herself as Catholic, but in reality is in many respects a better practical Christian than many of us) had a friend who found herself in a similar predicament. Fortunately, my niece is a highly-qualified nursing sister and could be both a source of comfort and solace, and assist with the induced birth.

The birth of the baby - a little five-months-carried perfectly-formed son in this case - was just the start of sorrow for this poor husband and wife.

As the law - disgracefully - does not always and everywhere consistently recognise, and is evermore inclined to shun, the personhood of the unborn child (whose rights, as we have seen in Victoria recently, may even completely disappear), such deaths may go unrecorded.

Funeral homes I am told usually only provide caskets after set periods of existence, something like 30 weeks or more in the womb. Cemeteries may often not offer burial grounds for such young babies - and there may be no crematorium facilities for such 'premature' deaths. It seems there are instances where people in the past may have been advised to take their babies' remains and bury them themselves in their own back gardens!

In the latter case mentioned above, fortunately, the funeral home compassionately provided a casket, but the distraught mother was nevertheless reportedly required to take it, together with the unembalmed child inside, home with her on a Friday, in preparation for his burial on the following Monday. My niece sensibly implored the parents not to yield to any desire to open the casket, as bodily decay is rapid in these cases.

We can easily relate to the intensity of the parents' grief but it is worth considering the issues. For a Catholic, there is not only the question of baptism for a start, but also the practical consideration of the possibilities for respectful disposition of the child's remains.

I am told the midwife in this latter case suggested to the overwhelmed young mother that she might consider interring her baby's remains in a flower pot. This sentiment understandably may seem at first very out of place, maybe even callous and cynical.

It is not so clear that it was probably just meant as some practical advice, however out of context with our age, but born of tradition perhaps, as familiarity with John Keats' dark, empathetic and profoundly moving poem, Isabella or The Pot of Basil, may serve to illustrate.

Will Elsin's poem, 'Renee', appeared in the February edition of AD2000.

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