Thomas Browne – “Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Burial” (excerpts)

The discovery of several ancient burial urns near Norwich prompted Browne to write this sober meditation about mortality and fleeting nature of all things. Browne starts by comparing the long life of these urns with everything that was going on above ground – they outlasted people, houses, and survived three military conquests. The random nature in which some artefacts survive and some don’t illustrate the larger truth about the random nature of historical and human memory. Some names are recorded for posterity, like Hippocrates’ patients, but what’s the point of being only known by your name, without any further information about what kind of person you were? Moreover, we remember the names of some wicked men, while we totally forget the good ones: everybody knows Herostrates, who burnt the great temple of Diana in Ephesus only to become famous, while hardly anybody knows the name of its architect. So I would like to say after the NAEL footnote that his name was Chersiphon. I hope this contributes in a tiny way to redressing this historical injustice. Every hour and every day add to this growing oblivion, consuming everything. This historical forgetfulness is reflected in our own personal forgetfulness – in time we forget all, both good and bad things, and that in a sense is a blessing, because how could we live if we constantly remembered all the pains and wounds constantly inflicted on us by life? The ancients comforted themselves with the belief about the transmigration of souls, which is a nice idea, because it gives us hope for some kind of development. Others believed that when we die, we melt into a kind of common soul, so we return to our divine origins. Egyptians believed that as long as they can preserve their bodies, they can preserve their souls, but taking into account that in Browne’s times powdered mummies were a popular medicine (see Donne’s “Love’s Alchemy”), fate played a cruel joke on them.

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