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Hallo again to all.

The Birthday Book of the DeadThis week, thanks to the wonders of eBay, we acquired a remarkable relic of Anglican life from the Great War. Its full title is A Birthday Book of the Dead with Litany and Prayers, and it is dedicated 'To All those who gave their lives for us upon the wide seas and in the high places of the field, the Heroic Dead of the King's Navy and Army'. It was put out in 1915 by that sometimes-naughty Anglo-Catholic publisher, the Society of SS Peter and Paul, and we have never seen another copy. Worldcat seems unaware of it, and so do ABEBooks.

If you will bear with us for some more bibliographic description, it is a small, hardcover book with a few dozens of unnumbered pages. The front free endpaper has the inscription in pencil "M. Wright. Feb. 1916." The penmanship is neither especially masculine nor especially feminine, and the lack of a first name doesn't help us to understand whether this book belonged to a man or a woman. The first pages after the title page give the text of Psalm 130 (De profundis), a Litany of the Departed, an English translation of the Dies Irae, and a handful of collects from the Book of Common Prayer.

What follows is most moving and surprising. Three or four pages have the running headers January, February, March, etc. for each month of the year, with a verse of scripture at the bottom of each page. On a page for the appropriate month during which each of the following persons died—their heavenly birthdays—the first owner of this book has written the names of

Miss Phelps
Father 1904
Miss Aldridge
Uncle Tom
David 1914
Mrs. Browne at the rectory
Gerard Wright aged six weeks 1904
Lois Mason
Uncle Frank (Colonel Openshaw)
Percy, my brother
Dick Browne (at Gallipoli)
Jack Browne (at Gallipoli)
Little Joan aged one week 1899
Frances Adeline Gordon, 1916*

Some months and many pages are completely blank, but the realisation that each name had been inscribed with grief-and-gratitude-tinged love made waves of awe wash over us.

In a kind of exact reverse of the modern practice—much facilitated by social media—of keeping track of friends' birthdays in order to wish them many happy returns, this book and its owner recorded the death anniversaries of loved ones. We're not sure we've ever seen a more tangible piece of evidence for the perfect permeability of the lives of the living and the dead in the Love of God. This Birthday Book of the Dead gave its owner and others like him or her a way of holding in ongoing love those who then and now could say that

Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

This book seems an appropriate discovery on the eve of Transfigurationtide, when we celebrate Christ's appearance in transformed glory and light on Mount Tabor with Moses and Elijah—both even then long dead to the world, but revealed to us in this miracle as very much alive to God and the eyes of faith.

A friend asked us this week what Anglicans believe about the saints and the dead, and we pointed in an earnest direction toward the traditional prayer

And we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear, beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service; and to grant us grace so to follow the good examples of all thy saints, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom.

We'd much rather have shown her this book, with its tender, personal, careful, tactile evidence not just of one Christian's devotional life during the First World War; but as a sign of the way in which Anglicans can—at our best—believe our living selves to be among the dead who live and grow, whose anniversaries return, whose lives impact our hearts as long their memory remains, who are ever changed but not ever ended.

See you next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

4 August 2013

* A few hours of desultory research give us confidence in identifying the owner as part of a family from Sussex who had strong military and some clerical connections. In terms of the meaning of the object and the practice it shows us, though, these geographical and genealogical specifics are far from the most important things to notice.

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