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Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend online

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expectations; bones, hairs, nails, and teeth of the dead,
were the treasures of old sorcerers. In vain we revive
such practices; present superstition too visibly per-
petuates the folly of our forefathers, wherein unto old
observation this island was so complete, that it might
have instructed Persia.

Plato's historian of the other world lies twelve days
incorrupted, while his soul was viewing the large stations
of the dead. How to keep the corpse seven days from
corruption by anointing and washing, without extentera-
tion, were an hazardable piece of art, in our choicest
practice. How they made distinct separation of bones
and ashes from fiery admixture, hath found no historical
solution; though they seemed to make a distinct col-
lection and overlooked not Pyrrhus his toe. Some pro-
vision they might make by fictile vessels, coverings,
tiles, or flat stones, upon and about the body (and in
the same field, not far from these urns, many stones were
found underground), as also by careful separation of
extraneous matter composing and raking up the burnt
bones with forks, observable in that notable lamp of
Galvanus Martianus, who had the sight of the vas
ustrinum or vessel wherein they burnt the dead, found
in the Esquiline field at Rome, might have afforded
clearer solution. But their insatisfaction herein begat
that remarkable invention in the funeral pyres of some
princes, by incombustible sheets made with a texture of
asbestos, incremable flax, or salamander's wool, which
preserved their bones and ashes incommixed.

How the bulk of a man should sink into so few pounds
of bones and ashes, may seem strange unto any who
considers not its constitution, and how slender a mass
will remain upon an open and urging fire of the carnal
composition. Even bones themselves, reduced into
ashes, do abate a notable proportion. And consisting
much of a volatile salt, when that is fired out, make a
light kind of cinders. Although their bulk be dis-
proportionable to their weight, when the heavy principle
of salt is fired out, and the earth almost only remaineth;
observable in sallow, which makes more ashes than oak,
and discovers the common fraud of selling ashes by
measure, and not by ponderation.

Some bones make best skeletons, some bodies quick
and speediest ashes. Who would expect a quick flame
from hydropical Heraclitus? The poisoned soldier
when his belly brake, put out two pyres in Plutarch.
But in the plague of Athens, one private pyre served
two or three intruders; and the Saracens burnt in large
heaps, by the king of Castile, showed how little fuel
sufficeth. Though the funeral pyre of Patroclus took
up an hundred foot,* a piece of an old boat burnt Pompey;
and if the burthen of Isaac were sufficient for an holo-
caust, a man may carry his own pyre.

From animals are drawn good burning lights, and
good medicines against burning. Though the seminal
humour seems of a contrary nature to fire, yet the body
completed proves a combustible lump, wherein fire
finds flame even from bones, and some fuel almost from
all parts; though the metropolis of humidity+ seems
least disposed unto it, which might render the skulls of
these urns less burned than other bones. But all flies
or sinks before fire almost in all bodies: when the com-
mon ligament is dissolved, the attenuable parts ascend,
the rest subside in coal, calx, or ashes.

To burn the bones of the king of Edom for lime,#
seems no irrational ferity; but to drink of the ashes
of dead relations,$ a passionate prodigality. He that
hath the ashes of his friend, hath an everlasting
treasure; where fire taketh leave, corruption slowly
enters. In bones well burnt, fire makes a wall against
itself; experimented in Copels, and tests of metals,
which consist of such ingredients. What the sun com-
poundeth, fire analyzeth, not transmuteth. That de-

* [Greek omitted]
+ The Brain. Hippocrates. # Amos ii. 1.
$ As Artemisia of her husband Mausolus.

vouring agent leaves almost always a morsel for the
earth, whereof all things are but a colony; and which,
if time permits, the mother element will have in their
primitive mass again.

He that looks for urns and old sepulchral relicks, must
not seek them in the ruins of temples, where no religion
anciently placed them. These were found in a field,
according to ancient custom, in noble or private burial;
the old practice of the Canaanites, the family of Abra-
ham, and the burying-place of Joshua, in the borders
of his possessions; and also agreeable unto Roman
practice to bury by highways, whereby their monu-
ments were under eye: - memorials of themselves, and
mementoes of mortality unto living passengers; whom
the epitaphs of great ones were fain to beg to stay and
look upon them, - a language though sometimes used,
not so proper in church inscriptions.* The sensible
rhetorick of the dead, to exemplarity of good life, first
admitted to the bones of pious men and martyrs within
church walls, which in succeeding ages crept into pro-
miscuous practice: while Constantine was peculiarly
favoured to be admitted into the church porch, and the
first thus buried in England, was in the days of Cuthred.

Christians dispute how their bodies should lie in the
grave. In urnal interment they clearly escaped this
controversy. Though we decline the religious considera-
tion, yet in cemeterial and narrower burying-places, to
avoid confusion and cross-position, a certain posture
were to be admitted: which even Pagan civility observed.
The Persians lay north and south; the Megarians and
Phoenicians placed their heads to the east; the Athen-
ians, some think, towards the west, which Christians
still retain. And Beda will have it to be the posture

* Siste, viator.

of our Saviour. That he was crucified with his face
toward the west, we will not contend with tradition and
probable account; but we applaud not the hand of the
painter, in exalting his cross so high above those on
either side: since hereof we find no authentic account
in history, and even the crosses found by Helena, pre-
tend no such distinction from longitude or dimension.

To be knav'd out of our graves, to have our skulls
made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into pipes,
to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abomina-
tions escaped in burning burials.

Urnal interments and burnt relicks lie not in fear of
worms, or to be an heritage for serpents. In carnal
sepulture, corruptions seem peculiar unto parts; and
some speak of snakes out of the spinal marrow. But
while we suppose common worms in graves, 'tis not
easy to find any there; few in churchyards above a foot
deep, fewer or none in churches though in fresh-decayed
bodies. Teeth, bones, and hair, give the most lasting
defiance to corruption. In an hydropical body, ten
years buried in the churchyard, we met with a fat con-
cretion, where the nitre of the earth, and the salt and
lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps
of fat into the consistence of the hardest Castile soap,
whereof part remaineth with us. After a battle with
the Persians, the Roman corpses decayed in few days,
while the Persian bodies remained dry and uncorrupted.
Bodies in the same ground do not uniformly dissolve, nor
bones equally moulder; whereof in the opprobrious
disease, we expect no long duration. The body of the
Marquis of Dorset* seemed sound and handsomely cere-
clothed, that after seventy-eight years was found uncor-

* Who was buried in 1530, and dug up in 1608, and found

perfect like an ordinary corpse newly interred.
rupted. Common tombs preserve not beyond powder:
a firmer consistence and compage of parts might be ex-
pected from arefaction, deep burial, or charcoal. The
greatest antiquities of mortal bodies may remain in
putrefied bones, whereof, though we take not in the
pillar of Lot's wife, or metamorphosis of Ortelius, some
may be older than pyramids, in the putrefied relicks of
the general inundation. When Alexander opened the
tomb of Cyrus, the remaining bones discovered his pro-
portion, whereof urnal fragments afford but a bad
conjecture, and have this disadvantage of grave inter-
ments, that they leave us ignorant of most personal dis-
coveries. For since bones afford not only rectitude and
stability but figure unto the body, it is no impossible
physiognomy to conjecture at fleshy appendencies,
and after what shape the muscles and carnous parts
might hang in their full consistencies. A full-spread
cariola shows a well-shaped horse behind; handsome
formed skulls give some analogy of fleshy resemblance.
A critical view of bones makes a good distinction of
sexes. Even colour is not beyond conjecture, since it
is hard to be deceived in the distinction of the Negroes'
skulls. Dante's* characters are to be found in skulls as
well as faces. Hercules is not only known by his foot.
Other parts make out their comproportions and infer-
ences upon whole or parts. And since the dimensions
of the head measure the whole body, and the figure
thereof gives conjecture of the principal faculties:
physiognomy outlives ourselves, and ends not in our

Severe contemplators, observing these lasting relicks,
may think them good monuments of persons past, little
advantage to future beings; and, considering that power

* Purgat. xxiii. 31.

which subdueth all things unto itself, that can resume
the scattered atoms, or identify out of anything, conceive
it superfluous to expect a resurrection out of relicks:
but the soul subsisting, other matter, clothed with due
accidents, may salve the individuality. Yet the saints,
we observe, arose from graves and monuments about
the holy city. Some think the ancient patriarchs so
earnestly desired to lay their bones in Canaan, as hoping
to make a part of that resurrection; and, though thirty
miles from Mount Calvary, at least to lie in that region
which should produce the first-fruits of the dead. And
if, according to learned conjecture, the bodies of men
shall rise where their greatest relicks remain, many are
not like to err in the topography of their resurrection,
though their bones or bodies be after translated by
angels into the field of Ezekiel's vision, or as some will
order it, into the valley of judgment, or Jehosaphat.


CHRISTIANS have handsomely glossed the deformity
of death by careful consideration of the body, and civil
rites which take off brutal terminations: and though
they conceived all reparable by a resurrection, cast not
off all care of interment. And since the ashes of sacrifices
burnt upon the altar of God were carefully carried out
by the priests, and deposed in a clean field; since they
acknowledged their bodies to be the lodging of Christ,
and temples of the Holy Ghost, they devolved not all
upon the sufficiency of soul-existence; and therefore
with long services and full solemnities, concluded their
last exequies, wherein to all distinctions the Greek
devotion seems most pathetically ceremonious.

Christian invention hath chiefly driven at rites, which
speak hopes of another life, and hints of a resurrection.
And if the ancient Gentiles held not the immortality of
their better part, and some subsistence after death, in
several rites, customs, actions, and expressions, they
contradicted their own opinions: wherein Democritus
went high, even to the thought of a resurrection, as
scoffingly recorded by Pliny.* What can be more
express than the expression of Phocylides?+ Or who
would expect from Lucretius# a sentence of Ecclesiastes?
Before Plato could speak, the soul had wings in Homer,
which fell not, but flew out of the body into the man-
sions of the dead; who also observed that handsome
distinction of Demas and Soma, for the body conjoined
to the soul, and body separated from it. Lucian spoke
much truth in jest, when he said that part of Hercules
which proceeded from Alcmena perished, that from
Jupiter remained immortal. Thus Socrates was con-
tent that his friends should bury his body, so they
would not think they buried Socrates; and, regarding
only his immortal part, was indifferent to be burnt or
buried. From such considerations, Diogenes might
contemn sepulture, and, being satisfied that the soul
could not perish, grow careless of corporal interment.
The Stoicks, who thought the souls of wise men had

* "Similis****reviviscendi promissa Democrito vanitas,
qui non revixit ipse. Quae (malum) ista dementia est iterari
vitam morte?" - Plin. I. vii. c. 55.
+ [Greek omitted]
# "Cedit item retro de terra quod fuit ante in terras." -
Luc., lib. ii. 998.

their habitation about the moon, might make slight
account of subterraneous deposition; whereas the
Pythagoreans and transcorporating philosophers, who
were to be often buried, held great care of their inter-
ment. And the Platonicks rejected not a due care of
the grave, though they put their ashes to unreasonable
expectations, in their tedious term of return and long
set revolution.

Men have lost their reason in nothing so much as
their religion, wherein stones and clouts make martyrs;
and, since the religion of one seems madness unto
another, to afford an account or rational of old rites
requires no rigid reader. That they kindled the pyre
aversely, or turning their face from it, was an handsome
symbol of unwilling ministration. That they washed
their bones with wine and milk; that the mother
wrapped them in linen, and dried them in her bosom,
the first fostering part and place of their nourishment;
that they opened their eyes toward heaven before they
kindled the fire, as the place of their hopes or original,
were no improper ceremonies. Their last valediction,*
thrice uttered by the attendants, was also very solemn,
and somewhat answered by Christians, who thought it
too little, if they threw not the earth thrice upon the
interred body. That, in strewing their tombs, the
Romans affected the rose; the Greeks amaranthus and
myrtle: that the funeral pyre consisted of sweet fuel,
cypress, fir, larix, yew, and trees perpetually verdant,
lay silent expressions of their surviving hopes. Wherein
Christians, who deck their coffins with bays, have found
a more elegant emblem; for that it, seeming dead, will
restore itself from the root, and its dry and exsuccous

* "Vale, vale, nos to ordine quo natura permittet sequamur."

leaves resume their verdure again; which, if we mis-
take not, we have also observed in furze. Whether the
planting of yew in churchyards hold not its original
from ancient funeral rites, or as an emblem of resur-
rection, from its perpetual verdure, may also admit

They made use of musick to excite or quiet the
affections of their friends, according to different har-
monies. But the secret and symbolical hint was the
harmonical nature of the soul; which, delivered from
the body, went again to enjoy the primitive harmony
of heaven, from whence it first descended; which,
according to its progress traced by antiquity, came
down by Cancer, and ascended by Capricornus.

They burnt not children before their teeth appeared,
as apprehending their bodies too tender a morsel for
fire, and that their gristly bones would scarce leave
separable relicks after the pyral combustion. That they
kindled not fire in their houses for some days after was
a strict memorial of the late afflicting fire. And mourn-
ing without hope, they had an happy fraud against
excessive lamentation, by a common opinion that deep
sorrows disturb their ghosts.*

That they buried their dead on their backs, or in a
supine position, seems agreeable unto profound sleep,
and common posture of dying; contrary to the most
natural way of birth; nor unlike our pendulous
posture, in the doubtful state of the womb. Diogenes
was singular, who preferred a prone situation in
the grave; and some Christians+ like neither, who
decline the figure of rest, and make choice of an
erect posture.

That they carried them out of the world with their

* "Tu manes ne loede meos." + The Russians. &c.

feet forward, not inconsonant unto reason, as contrary
unto the native posture of man, and his production first
into it; and also agreeable unto their opinions, while
they bid adieu unto the world, not to look again upon
it; whereas Mahometans who think to return to a
delightful life again, are carried forth with their heads
forward, and looking toward their houses.

They closed their eyes, as parts which first die, or
first discover the sad effects of death. But their iterated
clamations to excitate their dying or dead friends, or
revoke them unto life again, was a vanity of affection;
as not presumably ignorant of the critical tests of death,
by apposition of feathers, glasses, and reflection of
figures, which dead eyes represent not: which, however
not strictly verifiable in fresh and warm cadavers,
could hardly elude the test, in corpses of four or five

That they sucked in the last breath of their expiring
friends, was surely a practice of no medical institution,
but a loose opinion that the soul passed out that way,
and a fondness of affection, from some Pythagorical
foundation, that the spirit of one body passed into
another, which they wished might be their own.

That they poured oil upon the pyre, was a tolerable
practice, while the intention rested in facilitating the
ascension. But to place good omens in the quick and
speedy burning, to sacrifice unto the winds for a
despatch in this office, was a low form of supersti-

The archimime, or jester, attending the funeral train,
and imitating the speeches, gesture, and manners of the
deceased, was too light for such solemnities, contradict-
ing their funeral orations and doleful rites of the

That they buried a piece of money with them as a fee
of the Elysian ferryman, was a practice full of folly.
But the ancient custom of placing coins in considerable
urns, and the present practice of burying medals in the
noble foundations of Europe, are laudable ways of his-
torical discoveries, in actions, persons, chronologies;
and posterity will applaud them.

We examine not the old laws of sepulture, exempting
certain persons from burial or burning. But hereby we
apprehend that these were not the bones of persons
planet-struck or burnt with fire from heaven; no relicks
of traitors to their country, self-killers, or sacrilegious
malefactors; persons in old apprehension unworthy of the
earth; condemned unto the Tartarus of hell, and bottom-
less pit of Pluto, from whence there was no redemp-

Nor were only many customs questionable in order
to their obsequies, but also sundry practices, fictions,
and conceptions, discordant or obscure, of their state
and future beings. Whether unto eight or ten bodies
of men to add one of a woman, as being more in-
flammable and unctuously constituted for the better
pyral combustion, were any rational practice; or
whether the complaint of Periander's wife be toler-
able, that wanting her funeral burning, she suffered
intolerable cold in hell, according to the constitution
of the infernal house of Pluto, wherein cold makes a
great part of their tortures; it cannot pass without
some question.

Why the female ghosts appear unto Ulysses, before
the heroes and masculine spirits, - why the Psyche or
soul of Tiresias is of the masculine gender, who, being
blind on earth, sees more than all the rest in hell; why
the funeral suppers consisted of eggs, beans, smallage,
and lettuce, since the dead are made to eat asphodels
about the Elysian meadows: - why, since there is no
sacrifice acceptable, nor any propitiation for the cove-
nant of the grave, men set up the deity of Morta, and
fruitlessly adored divinities without ears, it cannot
escape some doubt.

The dead seem all alive in the human Hades of
Homer, yet cannot well speak, prophecy, or know the
living, except they drink blood, wherein is the life of
man. And therefore the souls of Penelope's paramours,
conducted by Mercury, chirped like bats, and those
which followed Hercules, made a noise but like a flock
of birds.

The departed spirits know things past and to come;
yet are ignorant of things present. Agamemnon fore-
tells what should happen unto Ulysses; yet ignorantly
inquires what is become of his own son. The ghosts
are afraid of swords in Homer; yet Sibylla tells AEneas
in Virgil, the thin habit of spirits was beyond the force
of weapons. The spirits put off their malice with their
bodies, and Caesar and Pompey accord in Latin hell; yet
Ajax, in Homer, endures not a conference with Ulysses;
and Deiphobus appears all mangled in Virgil's ghosts,
yet we meet with perfect shadows among the wounded
ghosts of Homer.

Since Charon in Lucian applauds his condition among
the dead, whether it be handsomely said of Achilles,
that living contemner of death, that he had rather be a
ploughman's servant, than emperor of the dead? How
Hercules his soul is in hell, and yet in heaven; and
Julius his soul in a star, yet seen by AEneas in hell? -
except the ghosts were but images and shadows of the
soul, received in higher mansions, according to the
ancient division of body, soul, and image, or simulachrum
of them both. The particulars of future beings must
needs be dark unto ancient theories, which Christian
philosophy yet determines but in a cloud of opinions.
A dialogue between two infants in the womb concerning
the state of this world, might handsomely illustrate
our ignorance of the next, whereof methinks we
yet discourse in Pluto's den, and are but embryo

Pythagoras escapes in the fabulous hell of Dante,*
among that swarm of philosophers, wherein, whilst we
meet with Plato and Socrates, Cato is to be found in no
lower place than purgatory. Among all the set,
Epicurus is most considerable, whom men make honest
without an Elysium, who contemned life without en-
couragement of immortality, and making nothing after
death, yet made nothing of the king of terrors.

Were the happiness of the next world as closely appre-
hended as the felicities of this, it were a martyrdom to
live; and unto such as consider none hereafter, it must be
more than death to die, which makes us amazed at those
audacities that durst be nothing and return into their
chaos again. Certainly such spirits as could contemn
death, when they expected no better being after, would
have scorned to live, had they known any. And there-
fore we applaud not the judgment of Machiavel, that
Christianity makes men cowards, or that with the con-
fidence of but half-dying, the despised virtues of
patience and humility have abased the spirits of men,
which Pagan principles exalted; but rather regulated
the wildness of audacities in the attempts, grounds, and
eternal sequels of death; wherein men of the boldest
spirits are often prodigiously temerarious. Nor can we
extenuate the valour of ancient martyrs, who contemned

* Del Inferno, cant. 4.

death in the uncomfortable scene of their lives, and in
their decrepit martyrdoms did probably lose not many
months of their days, or parted with life when it was
scarce worth the living. For (beside that long time
past holds no consideration unto a slender time to come)
they had no small disadvantage from the constitution
of old age, which naturally makes men fearful, and
complexionally superannuated from the bold and
courageous thoughts of youth and fervent years. But
the contempt of death from corporal animosity, pro-
moteth not our felicity. They may sit in the orchestra,
and noblest seats of heaven, who have held up
shaking hands in the fire, and humanly contended
for glory.

Meanwhile Epicurus lies deep in Dante's hell, where-
in we meet with tombs enclosing souls which denied
their immortalities. But whether the virtuous heathen,
who lived better than he spake, or erring in the prin-
ciples of himself, yet lived above philosophers of more
specious maxims, lie so deep as he is placed, at least so
low as not to rise against Christians, who believing or
knowing that truth, have lastingly denied it in their
practice and conversation - were a query too sad to
insist on.

But all or most apprehensions rested in opinions of
some future being, which, ignorantly or coldly believed,
begat those perverted conceptions, ceremonies, sayings,
which Christians pity or laugh at. Happy are they

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Online LibraryThomas BrowneReligio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend → online text (page 11 of 15)