Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics
Chapter 10: Human Dignity
In previous chapters we have considered both the unique
character of human suffering and the special vitality of human
engagement, with both life and the world. What is it about
us, unique among the species, that enables our suffering to
be (at least partially) redeemed? What is it about us, unique
among the species, that enables us to strive upward against
the downward pull of necessity or to meet the world and our
fellow creatures fully and directly, actively and honestly,
feelingly and truly? The name we give to this excellence is
“human dignity.” In examining it, with the help of the following
readings, we may find that it is what we value most about
The religious among us may locate the origin of our special
dignity in our God-given origin and God-like being. The secular
may locate the source of it within our selves, whether seen
as an unintended product of blind evolution, as a mysterious
gift of nature, or as the result of law and custom—in any
case, a power that sets us apart from everything else that
lives. All of us, however, can see it expressed in the myriad
ways we manifest our embodied humanity in living our individuated
and finite lives. Although they emphasize different aspects
of human dignity, the readings below illuminate this virtue
that celebrates our full humanity: not just reason or will,
not just strength or beauty, but our integrated powers of
body, mind, and soul that express themselves in all our activities,
large and small.
Our first two readings offer different views, religious
and secular, of the source and ground of human dignity. The
excerpt from The Book of Genesis suggests that it is
bestowed upon us by divine gift, and that it rests in our
being in God’s image and likeness. The excerpts from Thomas
Hobbes’ Leviathan and Immanuel Kant’s Fundamental
Principals of the Metaphysics of Morals offer different
philosophical accounts, the first suggesting that human dignity
is not natural but a bestowal of society, the second suggesting
that it is grounded in man’s rational capacity to be moral.
The next two readings point to a primordial dignity that
inheres in us as humans, by finding it in two inarticulate
individuals: a corpse and an infant. An excerpt from The Iliad
of Homer illuminates the need to respect the mortal remains
of a human being. An excerpt from the Histories of
Herodotus considers the inviolable quality of a baby.
In midlife, dignity inheres largely in behavior and character.
Our fifth reading, consisting of excerpts from Willa Cather’s
My Ántonia, concerns a suicide, who retains his dignity
despite taking his own life; this is appreciated even by those
inclined to judge him for what he has done.
For most people, throughout most of history, the central
and in many ways defining activity of life has been work.
Our next four readings concern the dignity of labor. The special
dignity of physical labor is expressed in Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith,” and in the lyrics of
the traditional song, “John Henry,” with Paul Kaplan’s contemporary
parody, “Henry the Accountant.” Victorian critic John Ruskin
can be seen to challenge these readings in an excerpt from
Crown of Wild Olive. A final dignified laborer, however,
completes this quartet in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Washwoman.”
Our last three readings present supreme examples of human
dignity at its finest, displayed in acts of generosity, devotion,
courage, self-knowledge, self-command, and bold defense of
human freedom and human dignity itself. The first appears
in a lighthearted work of fiction: O. Henry’s “Two Thanksgiving-Day
Gentlemen,” in which two men suppress their own needs out
of generosity to each other and out of devotion to a tradition
they perceive to be larger than themselves. The next—from
truth, not fiction, in an excerpt from his memoir To Build
A Castle—is an attempt by former Soviet dissident Vladimir
Bukovsky to identify the responsibilities that confront men
and women living under tyrannies.
Our final reading is the story of one specific human being
who resolves to live no more under the thumb of a tyrant.
In this excerpt from his Autobiography, we learn that
the self-liberation of former American slave Frederick R.
Douglass must occur in mind and in body both, and by his own
agency and effort. It results in a human being who has suffered
and overcome suffering, and who stands resolved to suffer
further, even to the point of death, if that is what it takes
for him to live as a man, and not as a beast. It is a fitting
end to our chapter on human dignity, and our volume about
bioethics. It is a rich bioethics indeed that celebrates the
birth into full humanity of such an individual.
by Willa Cather
My Ántonia is a fictional memoir of
a late-nineteenth century childhood on the great plains
of Nebraska. It is narrated by Jim Burden, who came to the
plains as a boy recently orphaned, to live with his grandparents.
Jim’s grandparents are comfortably
settled and provide well for him. But Jim arrives on the
same train with the Shimerda family. The Shimerdas have
come from Bohemia, nearly destitute, knowing little about
America, and dangerously ignorant about what it takes to
farm in the harsh environment of the great plains.
Mr. Shimerda is a musician by training,
and ill-equipped for his new life. A son, Marek, has been
born physically and mentally handicapped. Nonetheless, Mrs.
Shimerda has insisted on coming to America, placing her
hopes in her eldest son, Ambrosch. The household also includes
two daughters, Ántonia and Julka, and a cousin, Krajiek.
The first excerpt begins as the Burdens
prepare to visit the Shimerdas at their dugout home in winter.
Once there, they find the family in distress.
The Shimerdas are eating prairie dogs
and their children are sleeping in a hole in the earth.
Both practices sustain life effectively. Why is Jim’s grandmother
so disturbed by them?
Why is Mr. Shimerda dressed as he is,
in the darkness of his hovel? Why does he seem at first
to try to “hide,” though he has taken pains to be clean
The second excerpt takes place at Christmas.
The Burdens have delivered gifts to the Shimerdas, and Mr.
Shimerda comes to their home for the first time, to thank
them. The following week, Mrs. Shimerda visits with Jim’s
friend Ántonia, in a very different spirit.
Mr. Shimerda remains entirely dignified,
even when utterly relaxed and passive, and even when he
assumes a position—bowing before the tree—which looks strange
to his hosts. In what does his dignity reside?
The Burdens, even young Jim, can tell
that Mr. Shimerda is failing in important ways, yet he commands
their respect. What do they respect about him?
Jim is annoyed because “even misfortune
could not humble” Mrs. Shimerda. Is humility becoming, to
one who is unfortunate?
The third excerpt begins the morning
after Mr. Shimerda’s suicide is discovered, as the agitated
Burden household struggles to understand how a man they
liked and admired could have abandoned his beloved children
“in a hard world.”
The fourth excerpt includes a discussion
about where Mr. Shimerda is to be buried; as a suicide,
he is unwelcome in at least one of the local graveyards.
The Burdens are displeased by this, and shocked, too, at
his own family’s plan for his body.
The fifth and final excerpt describes
the burial and the grave.
Why is there a local to-do over where
Mr. Shimerda is to be buried? Why does Grandfather correctly
predict that “the people of this country” will not make
a crossroads over a grave? What about Mr. Shimerda does
Grandfather seem to acknowledge in his words at the graveside?
For several weeks after my sleigh-ride, we heard nothing
from the Shimerdas. My sore throat kept me indoors, and grandmother
had a cold which made the housework heavy for her. When Sunday
came she was glad to have a day of rest. One night at supper
Fuchs1 told us he had seen Mr. Shimerda out hunting.
‘He’s made himself a rabbit-skin cap, Jim, and a rabbit-skin
collar that he buttons on outside his coat. They ain’t got
but one overcoat among ’em over there, and they take turns
wearing it. They seem awful scared of cold, and stick in that
hole in the bank like badgers.’
‘All but the crazy boy,’ Jake put in. ‘He never wears the
coat. Krajiek says he’s turrible strong and can stand anything.
I guess rabbits must be getting scarce in this locality. Ambrosch
come along by the cornfield yesterday where I was at work
and showed me three prairie dogs he’d shot. He asked me if
they was good to eat. I spit and made a face and took on,
to scare him, but he just looked like he was smarter’n me
and put ’em back in his sack and walked off.’
Grandmother looked up in alarm and spoke to grandfather.
‘Josiah, you don’t suppose Krajiek would let them poor creatures
eat prairie dogs, do you?’
‘You had better go over and see our neighbours tomorrow,
Emmaline,’ he replied gravely.
Fuchs put in a cheerful word and said prairie dogs were
clean beasts and ought to be good for food, but their family
connections were against them. I asked what he meant, and
he grinned and said they belonged to the rat family.
When I went downstairs in the morning, I found grandmother
and Jake packing a hamper basket in the kitchen.
‘Now, Jake,’ grandmother was saying, ‘if you can find that
old rooster that got his comb froze, just give his neck a
twist, and we’ll take him along. There’s no good reason why
Mrs. Shimerda couldn’t have got hens from her neighbours last
fall and had a hen-house going by now. I reckon she was confused
and didn’t know where to begin. I’ve come strange to a new
country myself, but I never forgot hens are a good thing to
have, no matter what you don’t have.
‘Just as you say, ma’m,’ said Jake, ‘but I hate to think
of Krajiek getting a leg of that old rooster.’ He tramped
out through the long cellar and dropped the heavy door behind
After breakfast grandmother and Jake and I bundled ourselves
up and climbed into the cold front wagon-seat. As we approached
the Shimerdas’, we heard the frosty whine of the pump and
saw Ántonia, her head tied up and her cotton dress blown about
her, throwing all her weight on the pump-handle as it went
up and down. She heard our wagon, looked back over her shoulder,
and, catching up her pail of water, started at a run for the
hole in the bank.
Jake helped grandmother to the ground, saying he would bring
the provisions after he had blanketed his horses. We went
slowly up the icy path toward the door sunk in the drawside.
Blue puffs of smoke came from the stovepipe that stuck out
through the grass and snow, but the wind whisked them roughly
Mrs. Shimerda opened the door before we knocked and seized
grandmother’s hand. She did not say ‘How do!’ as usual, but
at once began to cry, talking very fast in her own language,
pointing to her feet which were tied up in rags, and looking
about accusingly at everyone.
The old man was sitting on a stump behind the stove, crouching
over as if he were trying to hide from us. Yulka was on the
floor at his feet, her kitten in her lap. She peeped out at
me and smiled, but, glancing up at her mother, hid again.
Ántonia was washing pans and dishes in a dark corner. The
crazy boy lay under the only window, stretched on a gunny-sack
stuffed with straw. As soon as we entered, he threw a grain-sack
over the crack at the bottom of the door. The air in the cave
was stifling, and it was very dark, too. A lighted lantern,
hung over the stove, threw out a feeble yellow glimmer.
Mrs. Shimerda snatched off the covers of two barrels behind
the door, and made us look into them. In one there were some
potatoes that had been frozen and were rotting, in the other
was a little pile of flour. Grandmother murmured something
in embarrassment, but the Bohemian woman laughed scornfully,
a kind of whinny-laugh, and, catching up an empty coffee-pot
from the shelf, shook it at us with a look positively vindictive.
Grandmother went on talking in her polite Virginia way,
not admitting their stark need or her own remissness, until
Jake arrived with the hamper, as if in direct answer to Mrs.
Shimerda’s reproaches. Then the poor woman broke down. She
dropped on the floor beside her crazy son, hid her face on
her knees, and sat crying bitterly. Grandmother paid no heed
to her, but called Ántonia to come and help empty the basket.
Tony left her corner reluctantly. I had never seen her crushed
like this before.
‘You not mind my poor mamenka, Mrs. Burden. She is
so sad,’ she whispered, as she wiped her wet hands on her
skirt and took the things grandmother handed her.
The crazy boy, seeing the food, began to make soft, gurgling
noises and stroked his stomach. Jake came in again, this time
with a sack of potatoes. Grandmother looked about in perplexity.
‘Haven’t you got any sort of cave or cellar outside, Ántonia?
This is no place to keep vegetables. How did your potatoes
‘We get from Mr. Bushy, at the post-office—what he throw
out. We got no potatoes, Mrs. Burden,’ Tony admitted mournfully.
When Jake went out, Marek crawled along the floor and stuffed
up the door-crack again. Then, quietly as a shadow, Mr. Shimerda
came out from behind the stove. He stood brushing his hand
over his smooth grey hair, as if he were trying to clear away
a fog about his head. He was clean and neat as usual, with
his green neckcloth and his coral pin. He took grandmother’s
arm and led her behind the stove, to the back of the room.
In the rear wall was another little cave; a round hole, not
much bigger than an oil barrel, scooped out in the black earth.
When I got up on one of the stools and peered into it, I saw
some quilts and a pile of straw. The old man held the lantern.
‘Yulka,’ he said in a low, despairing voice, ‘Yulka; my Ántonia!’
Grandmother drew back. ‘You mean they sleep in there—your
girls?’ He bowed his head.
Tony slipped under his arm. ‘It is very cold on the floor,
and this is warm like the badger hole. I like for sleep there,’
she insisted eagerly. ‘My mamenka have nice bed, with
pillows from our own geese in Bohemie. See, Jim?’ She pointed
to the narrow bunk which Krajiek had built against the wall
for himself before the Shimerdas came.
Grandmother sighed. ‘Sure enough, where would you
sleep, dear! I don’t doubt you’re warm there. You’ll have
a better house after while, Ántonia, and then you will forget
these hard times.’
Mr. Shimerda made grandmother sit down on the only chair
and pointed his wife to a stool beside her. Standing before
them with his hand on Ántonia’s shoulder, he talked in a low
tone, and his daughter translated. He wanted us to know that
they were not beggars in the old country; he made good wages,
and his family were respected there. He left Bohemia with
more than a thousand dollars in savings, after their passage
money was paid. He had in some way lost on exchange in New
York, and the railway fare to Nebraska was more than they
had expected. By the time they paid Krajiek for the land,
and bought his horses and oxen and some old farm machinery,
they had very little money left. He wished grandmother to
know, however, that he still had some money. If they could
get through until spring came, they would buy a cow and chickens
and plant a garden, and would then do very well. Ambrosch
and Ántonia were both old enough to work in the fields, and
they were willing to work. But the snow and the bitter weather
had disheartened them all.
Ántonia explained that her father meant to build a new house
for them in the spring; he and Ambrosch had already split
the logs for it, but the logs were all buried in the snow,
along the creek where they had been felled.
While grandmother encouraged and gave them advice, I sat
down on the floor with Yulka and let her show me her kitten.
Marek slid cautiously toward us and began to exhibit his webbed
fingers. I knew he wanted to make his queer noises for me—to
bark like a dog or whinny like a horse—but he did not dare
in the presence of his elders. Marek was always trying to
be agreeable, poor fellow, as if he had it on his mind that
he must make up for his deficiencies.
The Burden household has sent Christmas
gifts to the Shimerdas. On Christmas Day, Mr. Shimerda comes
to thank them. Soon after Christmas, his wife and daughter
pay a visit of their own.
At about four o’clock a visitor appeared: Mr. Shimerda,
wearing his rabbit-skin cap and collar, and new mittens his
wife had knitted. He had come to thank us for the presents,
and for all grandmother’s kindness to his family. Jake and
Otto joined us from the basement and we sat about the stove,
enjoying the deepening grey of the winter afternoon and the
atmosphere of comfort and security in my grandfather’s house.
This feeling seemed completely to take possession of Mr. Shimerda.
I suppose, in the crowded clutter of their cave, the old man
had come to believe that peace and order had vanished from
the earth, or existed only in the old world he had left so
far behind. He sat still and passive, his head resting against
the back of the wooden rocking-chair, his hands relaxed upon
the arms. His face had a look of weariness and pleasure, like
that of sick people when they feel relief from pain. Grandmother
insisted on his drinking a glass of Virginia apple-brandy
after his long walk in the cold, and when a faint flush came
up in his cheeks, his features might have been cut out of
a shell, they were so transparent. He said almost nothing,
and smiled rarely; but as he rested there we all had a sense
of his utter content.
As it grew dark, I asked whether I might light the Christmas
tree before the lamp was brought. When the candle-ends sent
up their conical yellow flames, all the coloured figures from
Austria stood out clear and full of meaning against the green
boughs. Mr. Shimerda rose, crossed himself, and quietly knelt
down before the tree, his head sunk forward. His long body
formed a letter ‘S.’ I saw grandmother look apprehensively
at grandfather. He was rather narrow in religious matters,
and sometimes spoke out and hurt people’s feelings. There
had been nothing strange about the tree before, but now, with
some one kneeling before it—images, candles . . . Grandfather
merely put his finger-tips to his brow and bowed his venerable
head, thus Protestantizing the atmosphere.
We persuaded our guest to stay for supper with us. He needed
little urging. As we sat down to the table, it occurred to
me that he liked to look at us, and that our faces were open
books to him. When his deep-seeing eyes rested on me, I felt
as if he were looking far ahead into the future for me, down
the road I would have to travel.
At nine o’clock Mr. Shimerda lighted one of our lanterns
and put on his overcoat and fur collar. He stood in the little
entry hall, the lantern and his fur cap under his arm, shaking
hands with us. When he took grandmother’s hand, he bent over
it as he always did, and said slowly, ‘Good wo-man!’ He made
the sign of the cross over me, put on his cap and went off
in the dark. As we turned back to the sitting-room, grandfather
looked at me searchingly. ‘The prayers of all good people
are good,’ he said quietly.
The week following Christmas brought in a thaw, and by New
Year’s Day all the world about us was a broth of grey slush,
and the guttered slope between the windmill and the barn was
running black water. The soft black earth stood out in patches
along the roadsides. I resumed all my chores, carried in the
cobs and wood and water, and spent the afternoons at the barn,
watching Jake shell corn with a hand-sheller.
One morning, during this interval of fine weather, Ántonia
and her mother rode over on one of their shaggy old horses
to pay us a visit. It was the first time Mrs. Shimerda had
been to our house, and she ran about examining our carpets
and curtains and furniture, all the while commenting upon
them to her daughter in an envious, complaining tone. In the
kitchen she caught up an iron pot that stood on the back of
the stove and said: ‘You got many, Shimerdas no got.’ I thought
it weak-minded of grandmother to give the pot to her.
After dinner, when she was helping to wash the dishes, she
said, tossing her head: ‘You got many things for cook. If
I got all things like you, I make much better.’
She was a conceited, boastful old thing, and even misfortune
could not humble her. I was so annoyed that I felt coldly
even toward Ántonia and listened unsympathetically when she
told me her father was not well.
‘My papa sad for the old country. He not look good. He never
make music any more. At home he play violin all the time;
for weddings and for dance. Here never. When I beg him for
play, he shake his head no. Some days he take his violin out
of his box and make with his fingers on the strings, like
this, but never he make the music. He don’t like this kawn-tree.’
‘People who don’t like this country ought to stay at home,’
I said severely. ‘We don’t make them come here.’
‘He not want to come, nev-er!’ she burst out. ‘My mamenka
make him come. All the time she say: “America big country;
much money, much land for my boys, much husband for my girls.”
My papa, he cry for leave his old friends what make music
with him. He love very much the man what play the long horn
like this’—she indicated a slide trombone. ‘They go to school
together and are friends from boys. But my mama, she want
Ambrosch for be rich, with many cattle.’
‘Your mama,’ I said angrily, ‘wants other people’s things.’
‘Your grandfather is rich,’ she retorted fiercely. ‘Why
he not help my papa? Ambrosch be rich, too, after while, and
he pay back. He is very smart boy. For Ambrosch my mama come
Ambrosch was considered the important person in the family.
Mrs. Shimerda and Ántonia always deferred to him, though he
was often surly with them and contemptuous toward his father.
Ambrosch and his mother had everything their own way. Though
Ántonia loved her father more than she did anyone else, she
stood in awe of her elder brother.
After I watched Ántonia and her mother go over the hill
on their miserable horse, carrying our iron pot with them,
I turned to grandmother, who had taken up her darning, and
said I hoped that snooping old woman wouldn’t come to see
us any more.
Grandmother chuckled and drove her bright needle across
a hole in Otto’s sock. ‘She’s not old, Jim, though I expect
she seems old to you. No, I wouldn’t mourn if she never came
again. But, you see, a body never knows what traits poverty
might bring out in ‘em. It makes a woman grasping to see her
children want for things. Now read me a chapter in “The Prince
of the House of David.” Let’s forget the Bohemians.’
On the morning of the twenty-second I wakened with a start.
Before I opened my eyes, I seemed to know that something had
happened. I heard excited voices in the kitchen—grandmother’s
was so shrill that I knew she must be almost beside herself.
I looked forward to any new crisis with delight. What could
it be, I wondered, as I hurried into my clothes. Perhaps the
barn had burned; perhaps the cattle had frozen to death; perhaps
a neighbour was lost in the storm.
Down in the kitchen grandfather was standing before the
stove with his hands behind him. Jake and Otto had taken off
their boots and were rubbing their woollen socks. Their clothes
and boots were steaming, and they both looked exhausted. On
the bench behind the stove lay a man, covered up with a blanket.
Grandmother motioned me to the dining-room. I obeyed reluctantly.
I watched her as she came and went, carrying dishes. Her lips
were tightly compressed and she kept whispering to herself:
‘Oh, dear Saviour!’ ‘Lord, Thou knowest!’
Presently grandfather came in and spoke to me: ‘Jimmy, we
will not have prayers this morning, because we have a great
deal to do. Old Mr. Shimerda is dead, and his family are in
great distress. Ambrosch came over here in the middle of the
night, and Jake and Otto went back with him. The boys have
had a hard night, and you must not bother them with questions.
That is Ambrosch, asleep on the bench. Come in to breakfast,
After Jake and Otto had swallowed their first cup of coffee,
they began to talk excitedly, disregarding grandmother’s warning
glances. I held my tongue, but I listened with all my ears.
‘No, sir,’ Fuchs said in answer to a question from grandfather,
‘nobody heard the gun go off. Ambrosch was out with the ox-team,
trying to break a road, and the women-folks was shut up tight
in their cave. When Ambrosch come in, it was dark and he didn’t
see nothing, but the oxen acted kind of queer. One of ‘em
ripped around and got away from him—bolted clean out of the
stable. His hands is blistered where the rope run through.
He got a lantern and went back and found the old man, just
as we seen him.’
‘Poor soul, poor soul!’ grandmother groaned. ‘I’d like to
think he never done it. He was always considerate and un-wishful
to give trouble. How could he forget himself and bring this
‘I don’t think he was out of his head for a minute, Mrs.
Burden,’ Fuchs declared. ‘He done everything natural. You
know he was always sort of fixy, and fixy he was to the last.
He shaved after dinner, and washed hisself all over after
the girls had done the dishes. Ántonia heated the water for
him. Then he put on a clean shirt and clean socks, and after
he was dressed he kissed her and the little one and took his
gun and said he was going out to hunt rabbits. He must have
gone right down to the barn and done it then. He layed down
on that bunk-bed, close to the ox stalls, where he always
slept. When we found him, everything was decent except’—Fuchs
wrinkled his brow and hesitated—‘except what he couldn’t nowise
foresee. His coat was hung on a peg, and his boots was under
the bed. He’d took off that silk neckcloth he always wore,
and folded it smooth and stuck his pin through it. He turned
back his shirt at the neck and rolled up his sleeves.’
‘I don’t see how he could do it!’ grandmother kept saying.
Otto misunderstood her. ‘Why, ma’m, it was simple enough;
he pulled the trigger with his big toe. He layed over on his
side and put the end of the barrel in his mouth, then he drew
up one foot and felt for the trigger. He found it all right!’
. . .
. . . Grandmother told grandfather she meant to go over
to the Shimerdas’ with him.
‘There is nothing you can do,’ he said doubtfully. ‘The
body can’t be touched until we get the coroner here from Black
Hawk, and that will be a matter of several days, this weather.’
‘Well, I can take them some victuals, anyway, and say a
word of comfort to them poor little girls. The oldest one
was his darling, and was like a right hand to him. He might
have thought of her. He’s left her alone in a hard world.’
The Burden household discusses where
Mr. Shimerda will be buried.
At supper the men ate like vikings, and the chocolate cake,
which I had hoped would linger on until tomorrow in a mutilated
condition, disappeared on the second round. They talked excitedly
about where they should bury Mr. Shimerda; I gathered that
the neighbours were all disturbed and shocked about something.
It developed that Mrs. Shimerda and Ambrosch wanted the old
man buried on the southwest corner of their own land; indeed,
under the very stake that marked the corner. Grandfather had
explained to Ambrosch that some day, when the country was
put under fence and the roads were confined to section lines,
two roads would cross exactly on that corner. But Ambrosch
only said, ‘It makes no matter.’
Grandfather asked Jelinek2whether in the old
country there was some superstition to the effect that a suicide
must be buried at the cross-roads. Jelinek said he didn’t
know; he seemed to remember hearing there had once been such
a custom in Bohemia. ‘Mrs. Shimerda is made up her mind,’
he added. ‘I try to persuade her, and say it looks bad for
her to all the neighbours; but she say so it must be. “There
I will bury him, if I dig the grave myself,” she say. I have
to promise her I help Ambrosch make the grave tomorrow.’
Grandfather smoothed his beard and looked judicial. ‘I don’t
know whose wish should decide the matter, if not hers. But
if she thinks she will live to see the people of this country
ride over that old man’s head, she is mistaken.’
The coffin was put into the wagon. We drove slowly away,
against the fine, icy snow which cut our faces like a sand-blast.
When we reached the grave, it looked a very little spot in
that snow-covered waste. The men took the coffin to the edge
of the hole and lowered it with ropes. We stood about watching
them, and the powdery snow lay without melting on the caps
and shoulders of the men and the shawls of the women. Jelinek
spoke in a persuasive tone to Mrs. Shimerda, and then turned
‘She says, Mr. Burden, she is very glad if you can make
some prayer for him here in English, for the neighbours to
Grandmother looked anxiously at grandfather. He took off
his hat, and the other men did likewise. I thought his prayer
remarkable. I still remember it. He began, ‘Oh, great and
just God, no man among us knows what the sleeper knows, nor
is it for us to judge what lies between him and Thee.’ He
prayed that if any man there had been remiss toward the stranger
come to a far country, God would forgive him and soften his
heart. He recalled the promises to the widow and the fatherless,
and asked God to smooth the way before this widow and her
children, and to ‘incline the hearts of men to deal justly
with her.’ In closing, he said we were leaving Mr. Shimerda
at ‘Thy judgment seat, which is also Thy mercy seat.’
All the time he was praying, grandmother watched him through
the black fingers of her glove, and when he said ‘Amen,’ I
thought she looked satisfied with him. She turned to Otto
and whispered, ‘Can’t you start a hymn, Fuchs? It would seem
Fuchs glanced about to see if there was general approval
of her suggestion, then began, ‘Jesus, Lover of my Soul,’
and all the men and women took it up after him. Whenever I
have heard the hymn since, it has made me remember that white
waste and the little group of people; and the bluish air,
full of fine, eddying snow, like long veils flying:
‘While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high.’
. . . . . . . .
Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and
the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had
almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were
under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things,
but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave
was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and
an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs.
Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road
from the north curved a little to the east just there, and
the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so
that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed,
was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon
or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like
soft grey rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place
without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most
dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory
intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved
the spirit that could not carry out the sentence—the error
from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads
along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never
a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without
wishing well to the sleeper.~