Treasure Unearthed: Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial

April 14, 2011 | 4 4 min read

coverThe Englishman Sir Thomas Browne lived in an era rich in destruction, including constant European wars, plagues, fires and the regicide of Charles the First, as Browne himself witnessed. It is no wonder death and the processes of burial should be the subject of his most celebrated work, Urn Burial—a sometimes archeological, sometimes metaphysical treatise on not only burial customs but what the human race hopes to gain from living regardless of what it leaves behind when dying. Now in our era of natural and financial disaster, where death is often exploited but also hidden more and more, Urn Burial has been reissued as part of the New Directions Pearl Series, which celebrates favorite authors in affordable, easy to carry pocket editions. Their minimalist covers progressively show a rhombus expanding in shape and growing in color—perhaps a nod to the company’s rich catalogue.

His life spanning three-quarters of the 17th Century, Browne, a physician, but also a scientist of sorts with his fingers in philosophy and spirituality, filled his writings with rigorous erudition, footnotes in many languages and references to classical literature and the historical leanings of such peoples as the Chaldeans, the Persians and the Scythians. These referents are sprinkled in the sentences of a stylist whose ornamental language and prose rhythms have caused such literary titans as Emerson, Melville, Woolf, Joyce, Borges, Gass and Sebald to praise him enthusiastically. Of the contents of the Roman urns found in Norfolk, England, Browne says:

In sundry Graves and Sepulchres, we meet with Rings, Coynes, and Chalices; Ancient frugality was so severe, that they allowed no gold to attend the Corps, but only that which served to fasten their teeth. Whether the Opaline stone in this Urne were burnt upon the finger of the dead, or cast into the fire by some affectionate friend, it will consist with either custome. But other incinerable substances were found so fresh, that they could feel no sindge from fire.

The consonance of the c- and f-sounds in the last two sentences sends the stirring suppositions of how the ancients might have acted in light of what was left in the urns careening into the reader’s mind. No archeologist ever took such care to construct such luxurious lines for his readership. Browne, on the level of language as well as inquiry, is not that strict, exacting, stereotypically staunch fusspot of science. With wonderment at the last resting place of the Opaline before its reappearance eons later, this excerpt is a poetic pull at assembling history, not a scientific one. Whether his poetic language rubbed his thought less astringent or not, Browne presents himself as more an interlocutor, a foil reflecting the given light of the sun so others many feel a little less dark in their darkness.

Browne’s inquiries at first range around the text without hope of answer, as his reports on the findings are often terminated with the knowledge of no certain knowledge: “…we hold but a wavering conjecture” and “we hold no authentick account.” Yet from this uncertainty Browne is able to later anchor his treatise with an extravagant philosophy of carpe diem:

It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come, unto which this seems progressionall, and otherwise made in vaine; Without this accomplishment the naturall expectation and desire of such a state, were but a fallacy in nature.

As Browne details the expedition and the history of our forebears he also steams his looking glass with his own breath. As he curiously contemplates death, more thoughts on death are produced. And yet after asking is there “no further state to come?” Browne finds there is something for the living. His charting of a feeling deep and rich in himself reaches full flavor in the infamous fifth chapter, where the prose bounds and jostles with rhythms, inversions and alliteration. The seer fuels his thought with a faintly Buddhist fatefulness:

Darknesse and light divide the course of time, and oblivion snares with memory, a great part even of our living beings; we slightly remember our felicities, and the smartest stroaks of affliction leave but short smart upon us. Sense endureth no extremities, and sorrows destroy us or themselves. To weep into stones are fables. Afflictions induce callosities, miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting rememberances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions.

We can’t know what is coming but if we can forget what misery may have accompanied our past we can fly into our future a little lighter with only a slight sorrow at time weighing us down. In contrast to the earlier questioning, Browne is very sure-voiced, speaking as the god who might have created the whole enterprise called “existence” that so troubles and entertains indiscriminately. No matter the custom, no matter the “Coynes” stowed in the urns for the ferryman Charon to give them safe passage across the rivers separating living from the dead, the “precious pyres” for the recently departed bodies—Browne seems to say it is what comes before the last breath that holds the most meaning as the words, “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us. A small fire sufficeth for life, great flames seemed too little after death,” seem to subscribe to.

As the sentences accumulate in the fifth chapter, (George Saintsbury in A History of English Prose Rhythm called it “the longest piece, perhaps, of absolutely sublime rhetoric to be found in the prose literature of the world” and W.G. Sebald in his introduction from his own notable novel The Rings of Saturn, described the sentences as “resembl[ing] processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness”) one can feel how Browne himself lived or burned “always with this hard gem-like flame,” as Walter Pater, in his book The Renaissance, would write as an echo of Browne’s fiery phrase above two hundred years later.

The unearthing of the Roman urns fanned those flames for Browne and sent him to construct a response to his bloody era in a style later called “baroque.” If life ends with death and that is all we know and all we can ever know, Browne knew to breathe in life fully and in the breathing to make it beautiful.

's fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, and Film Quarterly. He's the author of a collection of stories, My Brooklyn Writer Friend. More at