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.)