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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Lately I've been driving through the neighborhoods around my Chicago suburb, taking in all varieties of the little Las-Vegas-style productions of ghoulishness and do-it-yourself-in-your-own-front-yard Halloween displays. When it comes to graphic lawn ornaments and professional-level stage properties, these days we are provided with many options, many aids by which to celebrate the dead and direful. As with most holidays, Halloween makes us as a culture behave curiously. We revel with our children in the diabolical, the undead, the sociopathic, and many other things from which we would typically seek to shield them. It is a form of carnival, or saturnalia. Personally I've got nothing against it, and it may even be good for us in some deep way, but it bemuses me all the same. All Souls' and All Saints' days extend this fascination across centuries of tradition, and set it within a framework of fellowship and ultimate resurrection. Yet even so, there remains a similar fascination with our—with everyone's—pending physical extinction, the possible world to come, and our relationships with those already there.

If your own interest in these grave and gravely mortal matters hasn't already been sated, then do I have a book for you. New Directions has recently reprinted in its Pearl series a short little study by Sir Thomas Browne: Hydriotaphia Urne-Buriall, or, A Brief Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urns Lately Found in Norfolk (1658). It's slender at fewer than a hundred pages, but also reasonable at less than ten bucks. It's about the size of a Moleskine notebook or a meter maid's ticket pad. In Urn Burial, you will find all sorts of fascinating tidbits on dying, death, ceremony, burial, preservation (or not), hopes and fears about the afterlife, and other "after considerations."

A 17th-century English physician, Browne was a great prose writer in an age of great English prose. He studied medicine in Europe's best schools (Padua, Montpelier, Vienna, Leiden), and his early modern scientific expertise and habit of conducting experiments continually inform his writing. What's more, he has an enchanting, unflagging curiosity, be it toward antiquity, mysteries of nature and the body, or metaphysical complexities. He can be counted on to pursue these interests through his writing in ways unflinching if often digressive, and it is not unusual to encounter a passage like this: "Why the Female Ghosts appear unto Ulysses, before the Heroes and masculine spirits? Why the Psyche or soul of Tiresias is of the masculine gender …. Why the Funerall Suppers consisted of Eggs, Beans, Smallage, and Lettuce …? it cannot escape some doubt." Elsewhere he will inform you that liquids in funeral monuments are typically "incrassated into gellies." A consideration of varying postures for burial leads him to accept the tradition that Christ faced the west during his crucifixion, but to chastise painters who would make his cross larger than the others, on no good authority. Browne was also a person of faith of an easygoing sort (honest, eclectic), and he writes with a transparency that brings to mind his great fellow essayist, Montaigne.

He is intimidatingly erudite, and one must be prepared to read and enjoy his book without being particularly well acquainted with Frotho the Great, Ringo (not that one), Minucius, Sidonius, Pomponius, the "Learned Physician Wormius," and other historical personages whose stories Browne tells or from whose books he finds his stories. He rarely uses one word when a string of beauties will due, and so instead of calling the urns "round" he says they "most imitate a circular figure, in a sphericall and round composure," which he in macabre fashion compares with wombs, the "Urnes of our Nativity," our first bed like our last. Yet for all of his learned eloquence and startling analogies, there is something intoxicating and childlike (if those words ever can or should go together) in his ranging mind and penchant for compiling, and trusting in, ancient sources. If Plutarch says that Theseus' bones were brought back to Athens, then so be it.

Browne begins with the two "soberest" means of rest following "corporall dissolution"— burial (or "simple inhumation") and burning. Those who preferred cremation followed Heraclitus in finding fire to be the most natural element, and they also "declined a visible degeneration into worms" and malice of enemies against their bodies. On the other hand, Christians in particular preferred to return "not unto ashes but unto dust againe," conforming to the patriarchs, Christ (Browne imagines the "little bones" in his hands and feet), and the apostles and martyrs. He next turns to the forty or fifty urns, black in color, then only recently recovered from a "field of old Walsingham." A half-gallon to a gallon in capacity, they contained skulls, ribs, thigh-bones, as well as combs, brass instruments, and pieces of small boxes. Some had no covers so that the earth pressed into them: "some long roots of Quich, or Dogs-grass wreathed about the bones." Later he marvels at the survival of these objects, "not a yard deep" under the plow. "Time which antiquates Antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor Monuments."

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