This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
by Sir Thomas Browne (1605 to 1682)
“Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us. A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames seemed too little after death, while men vainly affected precious pyres, and to burn like Sardanapalus; but the wisedom of funerall Laws found the folly of prodigall blazes, and reduced undoing fires unto the rule of sober obsequies, wherein few could be so mean as not to provide wood, pitch, a mourner, and an Urne.”
Written after the discovery of some Bronze Age burial urns, Sir Thomas Browne’s profound consideration of the inevitability of death remains one the most fascinating and poignant of all reflections upon the vanity of our lust for immortality.
Some reach for the Bible or for Montaigne or St. Augustine when they want comfort. But for my part, give me Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne-Burial and I will be content. Much as I’ve found the general connection with the past opened up by the Great Ideas series to be calming, so too I found Browne’s examination of burial rites a balm.
Perhaps it is something in the tone, neither overly precise nor too flowery. Or perhaps there is some strange necrotic dignity in the juxtapositions of the ways of Phoenicians and Romans, Greeks and Etruscans, Persians and Mongols. Perhaps, too, I simply am soothed by the touches of loam and moss and black soil, suggestive of cool darkness and slow, rejuvenating decay, that form the compost of Browne’s essay. Life literally from the ritual of death: “That Bay-leaves were found green in the Tomb of S. Humbert, after an hundred and fifty years, was looked upon as miraculous.”
There’s some rough comfort in a return to the natural world:
…few have returned their bones farre lower than they might receive them; not affecting the graves of Giants, under hilly and heavy coverings, but content with lesse than their own depth, have wished their bones might lie soft, and the earth be light upon them…
There’s even peace in being told what we already know:
In vain we hope to be known by open and visible conservatories, when to be unknown was the means of their continuation and obscurity their protection: If they dyed by violent hands, and were thrust into their Urnes, these bones become considerable, and some old Philosophers would honour them, whose souls they conceived most pure, which wee thus snatched from their bodies…If we begin to die when we live, and long life be but a prolongation of death, our life is a sad composition; We live with death, and die not in a moment.
Lighting the way, philosophers including Lucretius and Plato form a procession through Browne’s essay, along with a profound litany of the burial and immolation rites of dozens of cultures. Browne travels from Heaven to Hell and back into the ground, giving the reader a magisterial and awe-inspiring wealth of tradition and detail. The Aegyptians were afraid of fire. The Scythians swore by wind and sword, life and death, and so “declined all interrment, and made their graves in the ayr.” The Chaldeans “abhorred the burning of their carcasses, as a pollution of their deity.”
We learn also that “From animals are drawn good burning lights,” that “In bones well-burnt, fire makes a wall of itself,” that “the bulk of a man” will “sink into a few pounds of bones and ashes,” and that “After a battle with the Persians, the Roman Corps decayed in a few dayes, while the Persian bodies remained dry and uncorrupted.”*
Browne shows us also the “vain apprehensions” of the dead, after their “farewells to all pleasure”:**
….notably illustrated from the Contents of that Romane Urne preserved by Cardinall Farnese, wherein besides great number of Gemmes with heads of Gods and Goddesses, were found an Ape of Agath, a Grashopper, an Elephant of Ambre, a Crystall Ball, three glasses, two Spoones, and six Nuts of Crystall.
For it “is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come.” And “We cannot hope to live so long in our names as some have done in their persons…The great mutations of the world are acted, our time may be too short for our designes…There is no antidote against the Opium of time.”
As Browne closes in on the end of this remarkable essay, the text opens up into the universal and nearly epiphanal…
Darkness and light divide the course of time, and oblivion shares with memory a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables. Afflictions induce callosities, miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us…
…even as he brings the reader back to specific cultures, now in a wider context: “Others rather than be lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing, were content to recede into the common being, and make one particle of the publick soul of all things, which was no more than to return into their unknown and divine Originall again.”
This sense of returning again to those rituals we’ve observed earlier, only to now see those rituals in a wider context, is to open up our portal onto the past in a way similar to a planetarium that expands it view from the Earth to the Earth in the context of the galaxy.
“The departed spirits know things past and to come, yet are ignorant of things present.” Throughout Urne-Burial, Browne tells that we will be gone one day and forgotten, but also that we are not alone. “Whatever hath no beginning may be confident of no end.”***
* “Salamanders wool” is also mentioned, toward which I now have an abiding curiosity, hoping it’s not simply referring to the place name.
**Intriguingly, Browne later mentions “three hundred golden bees” buried with bones in the Monument of Childerick.
***I also recommend reading the utterly beautiful and somber, “A Letter to a Friend, Upon Occasion of the Death of His Intimate Friend.”****
****More frivolous, but extremely entertaining is an excerpt from “Enquiries into Very Many Received Tenets and Commonly Presumed Truths,” from which I must quote three paragraphs:
The first shall be of the Elephant; whereof there generally passeth an opinion it hath no joints; and this absurdity is seconded with another, that being unable to lie down, it sleepeth against a tree…
That a Brock or Badger hath the legs of one side shorter then of the other…Which notwithstanding upon inquiry I finde repugnant unto the three determinators of truth, Authority, Sense, and Reason…
Another mistake there may be in the Picture of our first Parents, who after the manner of their posterity are both delineated with a Navell…
Be happy that you are alive, and respect your elders (even if they’re in pots).
Question for Readers
Why are morbid things often comforting?
Next up, after breaking for inauguration day here in the U.S., Voltaire’s Miracles and Idolatry…