Study Guide

Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial

by Sir Thomas Browne

Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial is one of the great glories of Renaissance scholarship and without doubt one of the greatest essays in English literature. The work is ostensibly a study on some forty or fifty Roman funeral urns that had been discovered near Norfolk. The wonderfully associative mind of the author immediately reads philosophical implications out of, and rich analogues into, the urns.

Regarded as one of the finest specimens of Baroque prose of the seventeenth century, Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial is also a superb example of the occasional essay. It is distinguished for a number of reasons. Like all of Sir Thomas Browne’s works, it displays a combination of education and sensibility characteristic of the writers of the seventeenth century, for whom science was an equal partner with classical learning. Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial is a demonstration of Browne’s enormous reading, enviable memory, and intense interest in humanity’s beliefs, habits, and hopes.

Browne uses the incidence of the discovery of these burial urns as a prompt for philosophical speculations about humankind, specifically the concepts of mutability and impermanence. The first chapters, largely descriptive of burial customs and living habits of past civilizations, are merely prelude to the more significant topic toward which the author is aiming in his thoughtful and provocative conclusion. The thrust of Browne’s method becomes clear at the end of the fourth chapter, when he begins the process of reexamining various burial customs in the light of theological, and specifically Christian, concerns.

The final chapter of Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial takes readers beyond the immediate subject of burial customs to contemplate the nature of death, life, and afterlife. In a poignant meditation on the inevitability of death and the vanity of human aspirations to overcome it, Browne muses in his conclusion on the implications of his findings. His vision, however, is not ultimately pessimistic. Paradoxically, the inability of people to guarantee immortality by their own efforts is balanced by the great comfort the author finds in his Christian faith. The promises of Christ provide him assurance that all people—even those whose deaths are marked by no monuments, whose remains are not preserved in funeral urns—may find true immortality in a realm where time and change have no meaning.

In the “Epistle Dedicatory,” addressed to “My worthy and Honoured Friend, Thomas Le Gros, of Crostwick, Esquire,” Browne sets his tone. He broods on the common fate of all people, asking who can know the fate of one’s own bones or how often one is to be disinterred and scattered, as the bones in these Roman urns are now being brought again from their private seclusion. The uncertainty of one’s ashes depresses his enthusiasm for earthly affairs at the same time that it excites his curiosity. He feels that it is his right and duty as physician, and man, to read the bones of our ancestors and learn from them, to make the living profit from the dead and to keep the living alive as long as possible.

Browne begins with a study of burial customs of ancient times, touching first on biblical Abraham and the patriarchs, and Adam, then proceeds whimsically to the assertion that God interred but one body, that of Moses. Browne next takes up the subject of the burning of corpses, which he asserts was widespread in ancient times. He begins with Homer’s account of Patroclus and Achilles, discusses the older tradition in Thebes, and then ranges to Israel, to the Amazons, and even to the Americas.

Next Browne says he will not discuss the ceremonies and rites of cremation or interment that are generally touched on by authors, but will talk only on the...

(The entire section is 1550 words.)

Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bennett, Joan. Sir Thomas Browne: A Man of Achievement in Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1962. A chapter on Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial examines Browne’s thought and how the prose style reflects Browne’s character and temperament.

Donovan, Dennis G., Magaretha G. Hartley Herman, and Ann E. Imbrie. Sir Thomas Browne and Robert Burton: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. A useful list of publications from 1643 to 1977 emphasizes criticism and interpretation of Browne and his work. Augments previous bibliographies of Browne; many annotations are extensive.

Fish, Stanley E., ed. Seventeenth-Century Prose: Modern Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. A compendium of useful essays on the various prose styles in Browne’s era. Of particular interest are “The Styles of Sir Thomas Browne,” by Austin Warren; “Sir Thomas Browne: The Relationship of Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyprus,” by Frank L. Huntley; and “Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial: The Ethics of Mortality,” by Leonard Nathanson.

Killeen, Kevin. “Duckweed and the Word of God: Seminal Principles and Creation in Thomas Browne.” In The Word and the World: Biblical Exegesis and Early Modern Science, edited by Kevin Killeen and Peter J. Forshaw. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Demonstrates how Browne’s reading of the Bible influenced his ideas about natural philosophy and science.

Nathanson, Leonard. The Strategy of Truth: A Study of Sir Thomas Browne. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967. Analysis and interpretation of Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial occupy a whole chapter, placing it in the larger framework of Browne’s work.

Preston, Claire. Thomas Browne and the Writing of Early Modern Science. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Analyzes Browne’s works on literature, science, and philosophy within the context of early modern empiricism and natural philosophy. Preston demonstrates how the emerging essay form, scientific experimentation, and the work of Francis Bacon influenced Browne’s writings.

Schwyzer, Philip. “Readers of the Lost Urns: Desire and Disintegration in Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial.” In Archaeologies of English Renaissance Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Schwyzer examines English Renaissance concepts of archeology by analyzing images of excavation, exhumation, and ruin in works by Browne and other writers.