Urn Burial (New Directions Pearls)
by Thomas Browne
Reviewed by Laird Hunt
In republishing Sir Thomas Browne's 17th-century meditation on burial practices throughout the ages, New Directions has done readers a double favor -- not only do we get to read Hydriotaphia, Urne Buriall in a handsome, stand-alone volume (it has traditionally been published with Browne's hermetic essay The Garden of Cyrus), but we get to have the thoughts of W. G. Sebald (translated by Michael Hulse) on Browne's work. This pairing is unusually fortuitous. Not only did Sebald live near and teach in the East Anglian city of Norwich, where Browne made his home, he also wrote hybrid texts that were informed by Browne's. Indeed, the "preface" to the current volume is an excerpt from one of the central chapters of Sebald's uncategorizable The Rings of Saturn, in which Sebald writes of Browne that, among other things, he left behind "a number of writings that defy all comparison."
Browne certainly did. Although he was known in his lifetime for his work as a physician, naturalist, and antiquarian, and for his now rather unwieldy spiritual and philosophical testament Religio Medici, it is more commonly for strange, beautiful works such as Hydriotaphia, The Garden of Cyrus (which explores the frequency of the quincunx pattern throughout nature), and the Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors (which exposes and/or debunks common misperceptions about the natural world) that he is read today. Of these latter, it is Hydriotaphia that puts Browne's gifts as an inimitable prose stylist most clearly on display:
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 were thus snatched from their bodies; and to retain a stranger propension unto them: whereas they weariedly left a languishing corps, and with faint desires of re-union. If they fell by long and aged decay, yet wrapt up in the bundle of time, they fall into indistinction, and make but one blot with Infants.
Written following the discovery of several dozen Roman funereal urns in a field near Norwich, Hydriotaphia
plunges deeply, and with many a welcome digression, into the subject of the treatment of our earthly remains. Browne reflects on the predilection during certain periods for burning, in others for burial, and -- in the case of the ash-filled urnes he is discussing or the Egyptian practice of mummification -- for both. More generally, and "drawing upon the most varied of historical and natural historical sources," as Sebald puts it, Browne puts his mind and pen to work in reflecting on the mortality of all species, so the interment practices of bees, elephants, and pismires are held up to the prismatic light of Browne's curiosity. But it is the human animal that is most carefully considered: humans with their "funerall Feasts, their Lamentations at the grave, their musick, and weeping mourners"; humans upon whom "the iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy"; humans -- as Hydriotaphia
so vividly suggests -- upon whose bones and ashes any number of honors and highly illuminating indiscretions may be visited.