Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial "Man Is A Noble Animal, Splendid In Ashes, Pompous In The Grave"

Sir Thomas Browne

"Man Is A Noble Animal, Splendid In Ashes, Pompous In The Grave"

Context: This philosophical physician and scientist set out to write a report concerning some forty or fifty Roman funeral urns which were exhumed near Norwich. His speculative nature led him beyond the bounds of a mere scientific report to a disquisition on burial customs in general, ranging, of course, through his vast knowledge of classical literature. In his final chapter Browne speculates on death and the brevity of human life. It is but vanity, he says, to "hope for immortality, or any patent from oblivion" in this world.

There is nothing strictly immortal, but immortality. Whatever hath no beginning may be confident of no end (all others have a dependent being, and within the reach of destruction) 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. But the sufficiency of Christian Immortality frustrates all earthly glory, and the quality of either state after death makes a folly of posthumous memory. God who only can destroy our souls, and hath assured our resurrection, either of our bodies or names hath directly promised no duration. Wherein there is so much chance that the boldest expectants have found unhappy frustration; and to hold long subsistence, seems but a scape in oblivion. But man is a noble animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnizing nativities and Deaths with equall lustre, nor omitting ceremonies of bravery, in the infamy of his nature.
Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us. A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames seemed too little after death. . . .