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Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial

Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial or a Brief Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, is a Discourse published in 1658 by Sir Thomas Browne. It was published as the first part of a two-part work that concludes with The Garden of Cyrus.

Its nominal subject was the discovery of a Bronze Age urn burial in Norfolk. The discovery of these remains prompts Browne to deliver, first, a careful description of the antiquties found. Browne then gives a careful survey of most of the burial and funerary customs, ancient and current, of which his era was aware.

The chief literary interest of the piece, though, is Browne's discourse of man's struggles with his own mortality, and the uncertainty of his fate and fame in this world and the next, to produce an extended funerary meditation tinged with melancholia. Browne rhetorically asks:

What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entered the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide solution. But who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above Antiquarism.

The changes wrought by time and eternity, the fleetingness of mortal fame, and our feeble attempts to cope with the certainty of death are Browne's subjects, which he turns into a copious flood of rhetorical prose. Yet, at the same time, Browne could be tersely witty, mocking human vainglory: "Time hath spared the epitaph of Adrian's horse, confounded that of himself."

Browne deeply influenced Thomas de Quincey, who said of this work,

What a melodious ascent as of a prelude to some impassioned requiem breathing from the pomps of earth, and from the sanctities of the grave! What a fluctus decumanus of rhetoric! Time expounded, not by generations or centuries, but by the vast periods of conquests and dynasties: by cycles of Pharaohs and Ptolemies, Antiochi and Arsacides!

The Urn Burial has also been admired by Charles Lamb, Samuel Johnson, Jorge Luis Borges, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said of it that it "smells in every word of the sepulchre." Which was, of course, the exact effect Browne wished.

In 2000, Tony Kushner wrote a play based on the work, entitled Hydriotaphia: or The Death of Dr. Browne.

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