Remember that what comes before doing something is making the decision to try and do it. We have to wake up and acknowledge that something needs to be done before we chose to do it.
What happens when we get lazy and stop trying to do something? We fall asleep and simply do not realise the need to do anything.
A strange (and possibly gruesome) example
Britain in the 1830s and 1840s saw towns grow at an unprecedented rate. There literally had been nothing like it anywhere in the world ever before. A village of a few hundred people could become a bustling town of tens of thousands of people just 20 years later. Houses were literally thrown up as fast as they could be built to accommodate all these people and as you might expect the infrastructure of the area groaned at the strain.
One of the stranger outworkings of this situation was the problems that arose when these incomers died. I said it might be gruesome. You see something had to be done with their bodies. The obvious thing was to have a funeral in the local church and then bury them in the churchyard.
Problem was that Britain was and still is divided into parishes. Often there was only one church serving an area. The way that the religious and political turmoil of the Reformation was settled in Britain left one dominant church in England that overpowered the opposition. At the beginning of the 19th century the stranglehold of the parish system was diminishing and some alternative church networks like Methodists and Baptists were starting to grow. Well at least they could open churches and not face imprisonment!
The problem with the parish system is that it is difficult and complicated to rearrange. It was worse at that time. To create a new parish took an Act of Parliament. The parish system was part of the infrastructure of the country that could barely cope with the strain of a country that was experiencing such rapid urbanisation.
Some parishes were huge with mile after mile of small villages and fields. Imagine if one of those villages suddenly started growing exponentially. What had been one field became packed with houses where hundreds if not thousands of people tried to survive in very unsanitary conditions. There might be one toilet per street and a water pump every two or three streets. The sort of place where it was really easy for disease to take hold, and it did at times with cholera epidemics like that of 1838 in Sunderland.
How does the parish church cope with all the extra funerals and all the additional burials? It is not easy extending the churchyard, especially once houses have been built all around it. To build a new church with a new churchyard means going through all the fuss and palaver of splitting up a parish into two or more sections with an Act of Parliament. That did happen sometimes, but it was a struggle.
The answer that some urban parish churches came up with was to squash as many burials into the churchyard as possible. One way this was done was to literally have layers of burials. When the burial plot is already occupied at the standard depth the next layer could only be shallower.
This is here the really gruesome bit comes in. If people are buried in shallow graves and there is a heavy rainstorm what happens? Some bodies are at risk of being unburied by the rain. There were stories of this actually happening and even stories of once buried dead bodies floating down the road. I said it was gruesome.
Understandably there was a public outcry. The government’s response was to set up Burial Boards. Board in this sense is basically a group of people who come together to achieve a specific purpose. In this case to make sure that it was possible for anyone who lived in a particular area to have a decent burial when the time came.
These Burial Boards organised and ran new cemeteries in their area. They provided an alternative to being buried in the churchyard. This alternative might be a short walk away from the church because that was where they could find the land. However, at least it was possible to arrange a decent and honourable burial for everyone in the community. I am not sure if anyone realised it at the time but it also made it easier to protect the community from infectious diseases.
If you look around Britain today you will find large numbers of churches that do not have churchyards. Some churches are surrounded by churchyards that are closed i.e. no longer allow people to be buried there. They have allowed the churchyard to fill up and not bothered to extend it.
The curious thing is the date when these churches were built. Most of the churches that do not have churchyards were built after the introduction of Burial Boards. In the 20th century it was more likely that a new church building would be surrounded by a well-maintained and pretty garden or a practical car park than an area where people could be buried.
Thinking about it that says something about how the attitude of the church has changed. A churchyard provided for the needs of the community. A garden looks good and shows an example and even provides a pleasant view for people. A car park provides for the practical needs of those attending the church and does not necessarily look good or help others.
Why is this story an example of this proverb in action?
One of the reasons why the church stopped providing places for people to be buried is that it is not an easy task. There are records to keep. Graves need to be dug. Provision needs to be made for memorials to be erected and maintained. There is no doubt about it, maintaining a burial ground requires work, sometimes a lot of work.
What is laziness? It is the avoidance of work. OK it might seem a bit unfair to say the church has been lazy in this respect given the number and range of activities it has been involved with but this definition does seem to apply in this situation.
We think of lazy people looking for a way to avoid work and to be honest that is what many 20th century churches have done. It is so much easier to leave the work to the town cemetery than to have your own churchyard.
What is the second part of this proverb? “the idle person will go hungry”. Umm what is the church hungry for, people to come through the doors. OK what do people do now when someone dies. Some contact the funeral director who finds someone who will take a service at the local crematorium. That someone may or may not have any connection to the church at all.
They don’t need to go to church to have a funeral it can be done elsewhere. Their loved ones are not buried in the churchyard so why go near the place. In fact that pretty garden around the church might be fenced off as private property and not be a place for anyone to walk round or appreciate at close hand. It does not even serve a purpose in the sense of providing food for the needy or just a place to gather a few flowers to give to someone to lift their spirits.
This proverb suggests that laziness brings sleep. In other words you stop working and fall asleep so you cannot even see the work that needs to be done. Oh my when I have tried explaining this idea to people it has been like giving them a wake up call.
It has simply been so long since their church has been involved in providing that kind of service to the community that they have stopped thinking about it as a possibility. They are hungry but just have not realised why their needs have not been satisfied.
There are other sayings like “give and it will be given back to you” or “you reap what you sow” that express this kind of relationship in a different way. The basic concept is that if you are hungry and want something to happen then you need to do something. Ouch!!