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Urn Burial (New Directions Pearls)
Urn Burial (New Directions Pearls)
Thomas Browne
New Directions, 2010
96 pp., $9.95

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Brett Foster


Urn Burial

Reading Thomas Browne for Halloween.

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After some consideration of English history, Browne determines the remains to belong to Romans or Romanized British, probably from around AD 300. He surveys the accessories for tombs and their symbolic valences, including bay leaves, cypress, olive, myrtle, and England's own moor logs and fir trees. Some ancient urns, he tells us, were decorated with flowers or ribbons. A Christian version might feature images or symbols of a future hope, and thereby it "sweetens our habitations in the Land of Moles and Pismires." Browne is also master name-dropper when it comes to odd character traits or positions held: Nero, he says, did not fear death in general but dreaded specifically decapitation or his body not being fully consumed by flame, while the Stoics thought the souls of wise men resided about the moon.

Browne repeatedly turns his investigation of these recovered urns into a figure for humankind's own limitation of knowledge, and its transience besides: "That great Antiquity America lay buried for a thousand years; and a large part of the earth is still in the Urne unto us." He recognizes that our own ignorance can sometimes be a blessing: "Were the happinesse of the next world as closely apprehended as the felicities of this, it were a martyrdome to live." Best to be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of those endured. Yet he does his best to shed light on many a fact. Teeth, bones, and hair most defy corruption. Pyres do not have to be large, he concludes, since the "burthen of Isaac were sufficient for an holocaust," and a piece of an old boat burnt Pompey. Nor are a pyre's remains very great. "How the bulk of a man should sink into so few pounds of bones and ashes," he remarks, "may seem strange unto any who considers not its constitution[.]" It is the brain, that "Metropolis of humidity," that seems most resistant to burning. Browne takes special pleasure in deducing and explaining. Despite his tireless curiosity, as a good Anglican he does become testy sometimes about superstitions surrounding burial or the "vain apprehension" that some buried objects will be useful in another life.

What would Browne make of our holiday observances and deathly mockeries today? Antiquity too could hold "too light thoughts from Objects of mortality," and he describes how "Juglers shewed tricks with Skeletons." Another jester attends funeral services and imitates the deceased, but is deemed "too light for such solemnities." I suspect that Browne would easily appreciate today's blinking, shrieking, spooky paraphernalia, since he himself acknowledges our tendency to have "artificial memento's, or coffins by our bed side, to minde us of our graves."

For all his intellectual whimsy, Browne takes matters of burial quite seriously. "He that hath the ashes of his friend, hath an everlasting treasure," he declares, and there is something both weird and touching about his report of ancients who "suck'd in the last breath of their expiring friends," likely a Pythagorean influence. Nor does he ever describe death flippantly, but to the contrary: our long habit of living makes dying harder, and "It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature." Browne's Christian outlook comes increasingly to the fore in the book's final chapter. Since our thoughts go naturally to the next world, we are less inclined to ponder duration, or the great passing of time, "which maketh Pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment." According to Browne, over the long haul, most of our names will be forgotten. We know Hadrian's horse's epitaph, but not that of his master. Yet a name's oblivion is not necessarily a bad thing: "who had not rather have been the good theef, then Pilate?" And for Christians, "humbly pursuing that infallible perpetuity," there is another consolation, further recovery: "The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not the record of man."

My single gripe with this new, reader-friendly edition of Urn Burial involves the preface, or rather the claim that the preface is by the late great W. G. Sebald. Hearing this, I keenly expected to find an introduction by Sebald unknown to me before, with much attention dedicated to the work at hand. Instead, nineteen pages are reprinted from Sebald's novel The Rings of Saturn (also a New Directions title) in which the speaker memorably describes his residence in the Norfolk & Norwich hospital where the skull of Browne supposedly was kept. The narrator recounts the vagaries of Browne's own remains, and their multiple interments, which give special resonance to a passage later in Urn Burial: "To be knav'd out of our graves, to have our sculls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into Pipes, to delight and sport our Enemies, are Tragicall Abominations."

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