Thursday, October 25, 2012

Death and Poetry: The Hearse Song

Old-fashioned hearse.
When I was in the second grade my sister and her friend taught me this poem. Once learned, I recited it on many occasions. I don't remember it being connected to just Halloween. 

Looking back I am amazed at how fast I learned it for it is not a short poem. This was probably because it has a nice cadence, and of course, we sang it. 

The subject is gruesome but it was fun. I remember how I relished the words as they rolled off my tongue especially the part about the worms.

The Hearse Song

Don't you ever laugh as a hearse rolls by,
For you may be the next to die.
They wrap you up in a big white sheet
From your head down to your feet.
They put you in a big black box
And cover you up with dirt and rocks.
All goes well for about a week,
Then your coffin begins to leak.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snort.
They eat your eyes, they eat your nose,
The eat the jelly between your toes.
A big green worm with rolling eyes
Crawls in your stomach and out your eyes.
Your stomach turns a slimy green,
And pus pours out like whipping cream.
You spread it on a slice of bread,
And that's what you eat when you are dead.

Years later when reading the "Scary Story" books written by Alvin Schwartz I discovered that this song/ poem is a more recent version of a poem that was recited by American and English troops during World War l. Below is the version they recited.

"Did you ever think as a hearse rolls by 
That some of these days you must surely die?
They'll take you away in a large black hack;
They'll take you away but they won't bring you back.

"...And your eyes drop out and your teeth fall in
And the worms crawl over your mouth and chin;
And the worms crawl out and the worms crawl in
And your limbs drop off limb by limb."

The words changed in these two versions but both poems had a useful purpose. In World War l this song helped soldiers deal with the fear they felt. 

For children in my generation, I feel it served a similar purpose. I have mentioned in other posts that ghost stories give children a non-threatening fun avenue to deal with their fears. 

The Hearse Song helps children in that it allows them to deal with the concept of death.

Schwartz points out that this song is part of a long-standing European poetic tradition that deals with death and decay and ultimately the hereafter. The following poem is one example from the 12th century.

"A vicious worm lives in my backbone;
My eyes are dazed and very dim:
My guts rot, my hair is green,
My teeth grin very grimly."

Here is the song with an extra verse thrown in for good measure.


Anthony Hopper said...

Nice poem--in a macabre sort of way...

Virginia Lamkin said...

It is a classic.

Unknown said...

Another one goes did you ever think as a hearse goes by that you may be the next to die they wrap you up in a big white sheet from your head down to your feet and the worms crawl in your stomach and out your snout your eyes pop out and teeth decay that is the end of a perfect day

Virginia Lamkin said...

Each region has their own.

Unknown said...

I love this song from my childhood and I miss it.
Being shy then when family/friends passed on it brought me peace. My uncle taught it to me it made me unafraid of death. I still him it at the graveside. I search used and new bookstores for Scarey Stories and Goosebumps for myself and my granddaughter.