Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial "The Long Habit Of Living Indisposeth Us For Dying"

Sir Thomas Browne

"The Long Habit Of Living Indisposeth Us For Dying"

Context: In his "discourse of the sepulchrall urnes lately found in Norfolk" Browne speculates upon these relics of the unknown dead. He ponders the fact that most of us quickly become anonymous–that death consigns us, together with all we have done and seen, felt, thought, and said, to swift oblivion. As he says, "to preserve the living, and make the dead to live, to keep men out of their Urnes, and discourse of humane fragments in them, is not impertinent unto our profession." In Chapter 5 he considers the greatness that is forgotten, and the insignificance that endures. These bones are minor monuments; yet they have outlasted everything built above them and have "quietly rested under the drums and tramplings of three conquests." Browne believes men should strive for the greatness that is in them, that they may hold oblivion at bay for a time–though, as he observes, it is better to have been virtuous but unknown than to live in infamy for ages. Browne's speculations lead him further: even the greatest deeds and names, the noblest monuments, cannot last forever; in terms of eternity, even the pyramids are but pillars of snow. He counsels the reader, therefore, to seek other glories than earthly ones. "There is nothing strictly immortall, but immortality; whatever hath no beginning, may be confident of no end–which is the peculiar of that necessary essence that cannot destroy itself; and the highest strain of omnipotency, to be so powerfully constituted as not to suffer even from the power of itself:

All others have a dependent being, and within the reach of destruction, but the sufficiency of Christian Immortality frustrates all earthly glory, and the quality of either state after death, makes a folly of posthumous memory." Before passing on to this escape from oblivion and a discussion of it, Browne comments both on man's fear of death and on the latter's inevitability:
In vain we hope to be known by open and visible conservatories, when to be unknown was the means of their continuation and obscurity their protection: If they dyed by violent hands, and were thrust into their Urnes, these bones become considerable, and some old Philosophers would honor 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 reunion. 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. If we begin to die when we live, and long life be but a prolongation of death; our life is a sad composition; We live with death, and die not in a moment . . . Our dayes become considerable, like petty sums by minute accumulations; where numerous fractions make up but small round numbers; and our dayes of a span long make not one little finger.
If the nearnesse of our last necessity, brought a nearer conformity into it, there were a happinesse in hoary hairs, and no calamity in half senses. But the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying; . . .