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The Way to Get Buried 1853

  The question arises some time or other in the mind of every man as to the best means of disposing of that corporeal skin which falls like a cerement when the chrysalis bursts and the Psyche soars into the sunshine of the eternal. Biblical tradition and modern custom have sanctified carnal interment; but there is no one who comes to revolve its fitness and propriety that does not instinctively feel the natural principle shuddering at such a disposition of the mortality of man. If antiquity were to hallow and prolong a custom, interment, as at present practiced, would take precedence of all others; but this is an age not to be frightened by the voices of the past; as we rush onward through the ever-opening skies of knowledge, mild facts and habits drop from our back and are swiftly lost in the receding wake. All who have beheld the ostentatious processions of sorrow that every day defile through our streets, cannot but have felt that the sanctity of death is profaned by the exhibition of such phantasmagoria of grief.

Funerals have degenerated from their pristine solemnity into advertisements of sorrow. The regrets of the mourners for the deceased may be computed by the number of horses to the hearse, and ostrich plumes on the canopy. The elaborate ceremony, from its beginning to its end, is conducted not so much for the gratification of private grief as to realize the expectations of public curiosity. Hired lamentation is doled out by the undertaker in proportion to the wealth of the deceased, and those who give that functionary the most liberal order, will ensure the most respectable sorrow. There is something inexpressibly sad and unfit to me in the sable phalanx of professional mourners that compose the procession of death. In that last hour when the lingering type of what we loved is on the eve of annihilation; when the corporeal likeness through which the immortal lamp once shone transparently is about to be defaced, none save the reverential gaze of friends should overlook the sacrifice. Nor do I think that lowering that tenderly-loved and sadly-recollected image into the damp and corrupting earth, satisfies the instinctive desires of our nature. If we want to cogitate on eternal life we turn our face to the skies, hunt the winds through space, and smile to the smiling stars. And to resolve and dissipate into the soaring air the inanimate form that lies so heavily on the tressels, would seem to me the hopefullest and sublimest way of launching the mortal hull into eternity. It may be sweet to know that here your father lies, and there your mother. To watch the budding of flowers upon the grave, and know that at a certain hour each day the sunshine steals through the trees and girdles the little mound with gold. it is the poetry of sorrow to seek such a spot and mourn, amid the long grass, the flowers, the falling leaves; all emblems of an inevitable decay, but all preachers of a glorious resurrection. Thus graves are sweet upon the surface. But let fancy pierce the turf, rout out the loathsome secret of the coffin; gaze upon the terrible process of corruption, and the shuddering heart will scarce admit that carnal interment is the sublimest way of disposing of the dead.

Taking it in a sanitary point of view modern burial is in some places absolutely objectionable. The distressing evils which it led to in the city of London are too well known to all who have perused Lord Ashley's Reports on Intramural Burial places. The masses of corruption into which some of the city grave yards had been converted defies description. The air that hung like a pall over the devoted neighborhood seemed poisonous to pure lungs. The instant a stranger entered the dominions of corruption he sickened. The vapors of putrefaction rose night and day from the choking burial place where corpses in every stage of decomposition were bursting from mockeries of graves. In the space of a very few years some of the city grave yards were known to have changed their level and risen ten feet from the number of bodies thrust in. This was obvious to a casual observer, as in most places the grave yards were bounded on at least two sides by houses and it was no uncommon sight to see the first floor windows altogether covered by the rising soil. The unhappy inhabitants of these pestilential abodes described the stench with which their rooms were constantly filled as something beyond conception. This state of things was in a great degree attributable to the fact that the officials of the adjoining church derived considerable emolument from the burial of bodies in their enclosure. The most horrible means, therefore, were resorted to by these wretches, to accommodate as many corpses as possible. When the graves, in which a dozen bodies were lying, became so full that no more could be accommodated, the fiendish officials of the churchyard were absolutely known to have constructed a machine for pounding the coffins and their contents into a smaller compass, and thus gaining a few inches for the reception of the new comer. These fetes are not in the least exaggerated. On the contrary, I hesitate to give all that was stated in the reports issued at the time, they being far too revolting for presentation to the public, unless some urgent necessity called for them.

A curious proposition was made at the time, by a London architect. This was the establishment of a general burial place for the inhabitants of London and its vicinity. He proposed to form a joint stock company, and erect a vast pyramidal mausoleum, some ten or twelve miles from the city. This pyramid was to be double the size of the great Pyramid of Ghizeh. It was to contain vast numbers of compartments, some private, some public property__in which the remains were to be deposited, on the payment of a small burial fee. I forget exactly the number of coffins it was computed it would hold; but the amount was very large. This scheme excited some attention at the moment, but eventually ended in nothing. I believe that very little reform, in spite of the vigorous efforts made in Parliament and elsewhere, has as yet taken place in the burial places of London. Country cemeteries have long been established but he mass of mortality still continues to be deposited daily in the reeking graveyards east of Temple Bar. There is little fear of our suffering from a like evil to any great extent. Wisely taught by such examples, extramural interment has become the rule. Our City is not canopied by clouds of poisonous gases fatal to health and beauty. The wind, as it rolls from the sea across the slopes of Greenwood, does not come to us laden with the breath of corruption. We can traverse the soil sacred to the dead without fear of the consequence of being ourselves added to the number.

Full of these thoughts upon burial places, I walked out the other day to Greenwood. It was scarcely a March day. The sun seemed full of Summer passion and poured out floods of light across the waters of the Bay. The hypocrite! well knowing that next morning would find him hidden behind black clouds from which issued all the rain and snow and cutting wind, of which March was capable. I allowed myself to be deceived however, and left my overcoat at home. My confidence in the day was not ill-founded. I was not betrayed, and reached home in the evening perfectly unharmed. On reaching the office of the Cemetery and making known my wish to inspect the grounds, Mr. Scrymkgeour, the intelligent and polite Keeper, expressed his willingness to accompany my friend and myself over the place and point out all that was worth seeing. Beautiful as Greenwood certainly is, and interesting as my journey through its burial mounds may have been, it confirmed all my previous prejudices against Cemeteries. These prejudices are more of a theoretical than a practical nature. I have felt them among the flower-planted avenues of Kensall Green. They have come upon me while gazing upon the theatrical monuments and dramatic inscriptions in Pere la Chaise, and even now in the quieter and unostentatious solitudes of Greenwood they were strong upon me. Let the world be ever so practical and utilitarian in its tendencies, a certain amount of poetry must always linger around death. As long as we believe in immortality a dim religious light of sanctity must hover around the temple that once housed the fiery particle. With such feelings for the dead the natural impulse is to symbolize them in the last resting place. I do not think that p public cemeteries and obtrusive monuments realize those delicate ideas of veneration and respect. In Greenwood, I saw nothing beyond the natural beauty of the grounds to excite solemn thought; square or oblong lots railed off with iron posts, and adorned inside with the inevitable urn, half covered with a cloth in brownstone or marble, are not very well calculated to inspire with sublime or noble reflections. Everything about me was artificial and executed according to law. it seemed as if people were buried according to the rule of three, such arithmetical exactness was there about their last homes. Then at every step some glaring instance of bad taste in the shape of a monument started up to tear rudely from our hearts what little poetry had been growing up there. On great numbers of the graves were deposited little plaster images of nude boys in the attitude of prayer. Made of such paltry material, easily stained and broken, and defective in design as such pieces usually are, it may be easily imagined that these defaced and noiseless cherubs created an effect very different from what was doubtless intended. In one instance, by the mound that swelled over the bosom of a child, sat a white plaster dog, watching with a fidelity only to be found in chalk, by the grave. The idea, s supposing it to have some foundation in real life, such as a companionship between the dead child and a pet dog, was a pretty one enough, but on drawing near to examine, what was my horror to discover that the plaster guardian was nothing less than a cast of a French poodle, half-shaven and elaborately curled! A little further on, we came to a white marble obelisk, where there was so much artificiality, we drew close. Half-way up the face of the pillar was sculptured a wreath of lowers. In the midst of the garland was carved this one word, "Smith."

The pillar bore no other visible inscription. This certainly was simple, but not very provocative of gravity. Had it been any other name in the directory it would not have been so bad.. Webster-Clay would have dignified it; even Robinson would have been not amiss; but Smith_nothing could have been less solemn or more absurd. Throughout the entire grounds was exhibited the same want of taste in these funeral decorations. Sometimes p pillars elaborately adorned as a bride-cake in a confectioner's window, would start up, while again it would be some bas relief of an angel, with arms as thick as its body, and a waist that Ariel himself would have been puzzled to put a girdle about. There was one gentleman in white marble, connected, I presume, with the sea, who, quadrant in hand, was taking an eternal observation of the sun. What he did when that luminary disappeared, and there happened to be no moon, one cannot readily imagine. An anchor, miraculously supported, stood on its end behind him, while at his feet, as if thrown aside with contempt, lay a mariner's compass. Thus surrounded by the emblems of his profession, and standing upon the quarter dock of his tomb, this worthy navigator is continually becalmed. Let us hope that when the great gale comes he will sail safe into port. For sea-faring people who may want a better allegory than this I beg to suggest one. If the deceased has been to sea let there be carved on the tomb a sailor climbing up the ratlines, and write underneath "Gone Aloft."

In all cemeteries expense seems to be a principal object. If a proprietor can spend ten thousand dollars on a mausoleum his family pride is satisfied. it is often said that the grave is the great leveler, and equalizes all men. Owners of lots do not so interpret it. On the contrary, in Greenwood, as elsewhere, you find Fifth-avenues of tombs, as proudly distinguished from the humbler graves, as the habitations of our merchant princes from the hovels at the Five points. Even the City of the Dead has its fashionable quarter.

There was one spot in Greenwood, that pleased me. It was on the summit of a piece of rising ground called Chestnut Hill. it was apparently a deserted spot, and only one or two tombs were visible. These were quiet, unobtrusive little ones that peeped as timidly out of the earth, as once did the children they covered, from out of the mother's arms. Large trees shaded the place, and from neglect the moss tufted the ground thickly, making a pleasant wildness. Wild vines trailed their leafless cords from tree to tree, like dusky serpents gorged and still. In and out between the trees flashed the blue-bird, lighting up the shady places with glimpses of Spring. here, I thought, it would perhaps be pleasant to rest; at the foot of one of those large trees with plenty of moss on the grave, and no tombstone to call a blush upon my moldering cheeks by challenging the world's esteem for virtues that I never possessed. Here where the distant sea gleams through the branches, type of that endless ocean on which all sail here, where the robin sings in Summer sweet carols for the dead__here, where there is no brick and mortar splendor to attract the vulgar crowd. Here_here,interrupted Mr. Scrymeckour, a lot sells for one hundred and ten dollars.

But, says the reader, return, Sir, if you please, to your subject. Tell us, as your title promises, "The Way to Get Buried." The Scythians, reader, made their graves in the air, believing, as they did the Wind to be the vital principle. The lehythyophagi, fish-eating nations about Egypt, cast themselves into the sea, as being the grave most consonant to their habits. The Balearians, as mentioned by Diodorus Siculus, bruised the flesh and bones of the dead, thrust them into great urns and heaped wood upon them. The parsees, a tribe of India, exposed their bodies as a prey for the eagle and the vulture. These were the eccentricities of burial, and scarce would suit the civilized funeral tastes. But if we want a mode of burial at once sublime, poetic, and free from all those physical objections applicable to other kinds of interment let us adopt cremation. Hercules sublimating his body upon the blazing pyre, and the Homeric funerals of Patroclus and Achilles, give us vividly all the sublimity of such an end. some people will object that these are pagan examples, but how eagerly the Christian martyrs rushed to the stake to indicate their faith, inwardly exclaiming, amid smoke and flames, as the Indian Brahman who burned himself at Athens, "Thus do I make myself immortal."

Viewing it materially cremation is an admirable means of disposing of the remains of man. By such course all the loathsome progress of animal corruption is passed at a single stride, and the corpse is in a few moments reduced to its primal dust. Were such a temple or pyramid as we have described some paragraphs back to be erected near every city, and adjoining it were to be established a well regulated place for universal cremation, how much superior it would be to present arrangements. The body taken there would be calcined instantaneously in a furnace constructed for the purpose the ashes carefully collected and placed in an urn, which might be niched in the great sepulcher, or retained by the family of the deceased, as choice or necessity would dictate. The animal remains would occupy a very small space in this shape, compared to the ordinary coffin, and we should have no more desecrated graves or loathsome church vaults, poisoning the atmosphere with their hideous breath, and adding new terrors to the spectacle of Death. With such a system there would be little room for the exhibition of that solemn ostentation seen in cemeteries. The ashes of the wealthy man would repose in a little urn, costly in execution perhaps, but scarcely bigger than that which enclosed the mortality of the poor mechanic. His virtues could not very well be thrust pertinacious before the public, and the fresh fair slopes of Greenwood would no longer be desecrated by gilt clock-cases, and plaster of Paris poodles.

Website: The History
Article Name: The Way to Get Buried 1853
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina


The New York Times March 19, 1853 p.2 (1 page)
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