Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial "Old Families Last Not Three Oaks"

Sir Thomas Browne

"Old Families Last Not Three Oaks"

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 this final chapter, a speculative dissertation on death, Browne considers the brevity of human life and the impermanence of both human fame and the monuments built to perpetuate it. Ancient heroes, he observes, have already outlasted their monuments; but, since time itself is drawing to an end, it now seems futile to attempt to establish enduring fame.

And therefore restless inquietude for the diuturnity of our memories unto present considerations seems a vanity almost out of date, and superanuated piece of folly. . . . 'Tis too late to be ambitious. The great mutations of the world are acted, our time may be too short for our designes. To extend our memories by monuments, whose death we daily pray for, and whose duration we cannot hope, without injury to our expectations in the advent of the last day, were a contradiction to our beliefs. We whose generations are ordained in this setting part of time, are providentially taken off from such imaginations. And being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity, are naturally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which maketh pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment. . . .
There is no antidote against the opium of time, which temporally considereth all things; our fathers find their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our survivors. . . . Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oaks. To be read by bare inscriptions, . . . to hope for eternity in aenigmaticall epithetes, or first letters of our names, to be studied by antiquaries, who we were, . . . are cold consolations unto the students of perpetuity, even by everlasting languages.