Death, graveyard, cross
The stork had given her shelter to the day of her death. I sang at her funeral," said the Wind, "as I had sung at her father's; I know where his grave is, and her grave, but no one else knows.
Now there are new times, changed times. The old highway is lost in the fields, old cemeteries have been made into new roads, and soon the steam engine, with its row of cars, will come to rush over the forgotten graves of unknown ancestors. Whew, whew, whew! On, on!
Still, it is easy to imagine yourself back in times more remote than even the reign of Christian VII, for now, as then, the brown heath of Jutland stretches for miles with its barrows, its mirages, its winding, rough, sandy roads.
It was a bright, sunshiny Sunday in late September; the peals of the church bells extended to one another all along the Nissum Fiord. The churches there are like immense stones, each like a piece of rock mountain; the North Sea itself might wash over them, and they would still stand firm. Most of them have no towers, their bells hanging out in the open air between two wooden beams.
The services had ended, and the congregation emerged from the House of God into the churchyard where then, as now, there grew neither tree nor shrub. No plants, flowers, or wreaths adorned the graves; only rough hillocks showed where the dead had been buried, while sharp grass, beaten flat by the wind, covered the whole cemetery. Here and there a single grave still has a tombstone, perhaps a moldering log, cut in the shape of a coffin. These are pieces of driftwood from the forests of West Jutland. The wild sea provides the shore dwellers with many hewn planks, cast upon the coast. But the wind and salt sea spray soon wear away these monuments.
One of these blocks had been placed on the grave of child, to which a young woman came from the church. She stopped and gazed down at the rotted wood; shortly her husband joined her. They spoke no word; presently he took her hand, and together they walked away from the grave, on over the brown heath and over the moor toward the sand dunes. For a long time they walked in silence.
"That was a good sermon today," said the man. "If we didn't have our Lord we would have nothing."
"Yes," replied his wife, "He sends us happiness and sorrow. He has a right to. Our little boy would have been five years old tomorrow if we had been allowed to keep him."
"It does no good to grieve," said the man. "He is much better off there than here; he is where we pray to go."
Then they talked about the sand dunes, and how they came to be here, and this was very interesting. The peasants found a corpse on the shore and buried it in the churchyard; then the sand began to fly about, and the sea broke in with violence. A wise man of the parish advised that the grave be opened, for if the stranger were found sucking his thumb, they could then be sure that he whom they had buried was a merman, and that the sea would not rest till it had fetched him back. So they opened the grave, and sure enough, the dead man lay with his thumb between his lips. He was quickly laid on a cart drawn by two oxen, and as though stung by hornets they rushed with him over heath and moor to the sea. That stopped the shower of flying sand, but the dunes that it formed are still there.
That was what Jörgen learned and carried away with him from the happiest days of his childhood – those four days at the funeral party.
What a journey! To breathe the fresh air again; to emerge from the cold damp prison air into the warm sunshine! The heath was gay with blooming heather; the shepherd boy perched on a warrior's grave mound, shrilling his flute made from sheep bones; Fata Morgana, the beautiful mirage of the desert, flaunted her hanging gardens and floating woods, and the wonderful transparent phenomenon called "Loki driving his flock" could be seen.
The Sunday before her departure, all were to go together to Holy Communion. The church was large and stately, built by the Dutch and Scotch many centuries before, and quite a distance from where the town is now situated. The church was somewhat dilapidated now, and the way through the deep sand made hard walking, but people did not mind these difficulties to get to the house of God, to sing psalms, and to hear the sermon. The sand was piled up outside the wall around the cemetery, but the graves had still been kept free of it.
It was the largest church north of the Lime Fiord. The Virgin Mary, with a golden crown on her head and the infant Saviour in her arms, was painted in bright colors above the altar; the holy Apostles were ranged around the choir, and high on the wall there hung portraits of Skagen's old burgomasters and councilmen, with their insignia of office. The pulpit was carved. The sun shone brightly into the church, lighting up the polished brass chandelier and the little vessel that hung down from the roof. Jörgen was overwhelmed by the same pure, childlike feeling of devotion that had thrilled his soul when, a boy, he had stood in the rich Spanish cathedral. But here the feeling was different, for in this place he felt that he was one of the congregation.
After the sermon came the Communion, and when Jörgen knelt with the others to receive the consecrated bread and wine, he found that he was kneeling next to Miss Clara. But his thoughts were so raised to God and the Holy Sacrament that not until they rose did he realize that she had been his neighbor. Then he saw the salt tears rolling down her cheeks.
(...) Merchant Brönne read aloud from an old chronicle. He read about Prince Hamlet of Denmark and of how he landed from England and fought a great battle near Bovbjerg; his grave was at Ramme, only a few miles from the eel seller's home, where the heath was like an immense cemetery, studded with hundreds of viking grave mounds. Merchant Brönne had visited Hamlet's grave.
"Let us pray for our Lord to take him; he will never be a man again."
"Poor crazy Jörgen," people said. And this was he who before he was born, was destined to have such a rich, earthly fortune and such happiness that it would be arrogance, terrible vanity, even to wish for or believe in an afterlife. Were all the fine qualities of his soul wasted? Only cruel days, anguish, and broken hopes had been his lot. He was like a precious root which is torn from its rich soil and flung out to rot in the sand. Could this really be the destiny of a soul created in the image of God – a mere game, battered by the chances of this world? No! The God of love will compensate him in another life for all that he lost and suffered in this. "The Lord is loving unto every man, and his mercy is over all His works." The pious old wife of Merchant Brönne repeated these words from the Psalms of David in faith and comfort, and she prayed that our Lord would soon end Jörgen's life of sorrow and take him to enjoy "God's gift of grace," the life everlasting.
Clara lay buried in the churchyard, where the sand drifted over the walls, but Jörgen did not seem to know this. It never penetrated the narrow world of his thoughts, which lived only in fragments from the past. Every Sunday he accompanied the family to church, and sat quietly with a blank face. Once, during the psalm singing, he sighed deeply, and his eyes took on life. He was gazing at the altar, at the very spot where, over a year ago, he had knelt beside his dead friend; his face turned white, his lips murmured her name, and the tears rolled down his cheeks.
The flying sand had drifted over the graves in the churchyard up to the very walls of the church; here among those who had gone before them, among relatives and friends, the dead were still being buried. Merchant Brönne and his wife now rested here under the white sand, among their children.
He went toward the church, where the sand lay drifted up against the wall and half covered the windows. The church door was unlocked and easy to open; Jörgen went in.
The wind raged and howled over the town of Skagen; such a hurricane had not been known within the memory of man. It was awful weather! But Jörgen was sheltered within the house of God, and while black night reigned outside, within him everything grew bright – bright with the light of the immortal soul. He felt as if the heavy stone in his head had burst with a clang! He imagined that the organ was playing, but it was only the storm and the roaring of the ocean that he heard. As he sat down in one of the pews he thought the candles were being lighted, one by one, until there was a blaze of light such as he had only seen in the land of the Spaniards. Then all the portraits of the old councilors and burgomasters came to life; they stepped down from the walls where they had hung for so many years, and seated themselves in the choir. Then the gates and doors of the church swung open, and all the dead entered, festively dressed, as was customary in the olden days; sweet music was played as they walked in and seated themselves in the pews. The psalm singing swelled like the rolling of the ocean. Jörgen's old foster parents from the Hunsby sand dunes were there, and the good Merchant Brönne and his wife, and beside them, next to Jörgen, sat their gentle, loving daughter. She gave her hand to Jörgen, and together they went up to the altar where they had knelt once before, and the pastor joined their hands and consecrated them to a life of love. Then the sound of the trumpet burst forth, marvelously like the voice of child, full of longing and expectation; it swelled into the sound of an organ, full of rich, glorious tones, blessed to hear and yet mighty enough to burst the tombstones on the graves.
The ship hanging in the choir sank downward, in front of them, and grew vast and splendid with silken sails and golden masts, with anchors of red gold and ropes of silken twine, like the ship in the old ballad. The bridal couple stepped on board, and all the congregation followed; there were room and enjoyment for all. Then the arches and walls of the church blossomed like the elder and the fragrant lime trees; joyfully they waved their green branches, and bowed, and parted. The ship was lifted up and sailed with them through the ocean, through the air. Every candle in the church became a tiny star; the winds sang a hymn, and all joined in:
"In love, to glory! No life shall be lost! Supreme happiness forever! Hallelujah!"
And these were Jörgen's last words in this mortal world, for the thread that held the immortal spirit snapped; only a lifeless corpse lay in the dark church, while the storm howled and covered it with drifting sand.
The next morning was Sunday, and the pastor and congregation set out for church. The road, buried in sand, was almost impassable. When they reached the church they found an enormous sand heap completely covering the door. Then the pastor prayed briefly and said that as God had now closed the door to this His house, they must go forth and raise Him a new one elsewhere. So they sang a psalm and returned home.
In vain Jörgen was sought throughout the town of Skagen and the sand dunes; it was supposed that the rolling waves of sand had buried him beneath them.
But his body was entombed in a vast sarcophagus, in the very church itself. During the storm our Lord cast earth over his coffin; the great heaps of sand lay above and around it, and they cover it to this day. The drifting sand lies piled above those mighty arches; thorns and wild roses now twine over the church, where the visitor struggles on toward its tower still showing above the sand. His tombstone may be seen for miles; no king ever had a more magnificent one. And no one will ever disturb the repose of the dead, for none until now has ever known his resting place; for this story was sung to me by the storm among the sand dunes.
Jörgen's transformation and redemption in the church takes place inside his head. It is unclear whether what happens is real (in any sense) or not. It is a sort of dream, in which Jörgen's soul sees a divine light and experiences happiness in illusive dream pictures, while he – as a matter of fact – dies. The scene is closely related to the death of The Little Match Girl and The Old Oak Tree's Last Dream.
The oak tree dream is, according to Johan de Mylius, at the core of the entire oeuvre, which Mylius conceives as centered about transformation in death and rebirth, and the striving against this kind of transformation. Cf. Mylius: Forvandlingens pris. H.C. Andersen og hans eventyr (The price of transformation. HCA and his fairytales), 2004.