My last words on 2020 from Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial

Oblivion. Death. The rites we practise to farewell the dead. What better themes to end 2020?

This afternoon I have begun a reading plan for 2020 that incorporates listening to audio books, and in one afternoon I have completed, while talking a lunchtime walk and doing the pre-dinner dishes, the magnificent sentences of Thomas Browne’s Hydrotaphia or Urn Burial.

This essay or short book, published in 1658, is a meditation on the customs of burial and farewelling the dead prompted by the digging up of 40 to 50 Roman burial urns in a field of old Walsingham, not many months prior to Browne picking up his doctor’s pen.

He meditates on burial practices across a wide range of cultures, and even animals, such as “bees; which civil society carrieth out their dead, and hath exequies, if not interrments.” What would Browne have made os the strange sterile practices of farewelling the dead, behind glass and protective personal equipment, of this pandemic of the fear of death.

Death and the futile dreams of immortality and perpetuity – even amidst the intertextual ether of the infinite conversation – make Browne contemplate oblivion: “the iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity.” And oblivion opens great tears in the fabric of history, culture and memory of our ancestors

“Who knows whether the best of men be known? or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot, then any that stand remembred in the known account of time? Without the favour of the everlasting Register the first man had been as unknown as the last, and Methuselahs long life had been his only Chronicle. Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the register of God, not in the record of man.”

thomas browne, urn burial

So ends the year. May we put the remains of 2020 in a burial urn, and consign it to oblivion.

Image source: engravings from frontispiece of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial

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