The Sunday before last was All Soul’s, and in the cold and the wet that morning we scattered the ashes of my grandfather, who was ninety-four years old when he died in the very early morning of Christmas Eve. His funeral and cremation had followed his death as quickly as the festive season would allow, but what was left of him rested inside a plastic container with my mother; whilst the house clearing and selling were dealt with, it all seemed too soon still, but once the small house and its contents had been dispersed, it seemed right to do the same to him, and All Soul’s Day was as good a day as any. The site chosen was the place where the ashes of his wife, my grandmother, had been scattered six years earlier: atop the graves of her own parents, in the village in which she’d been baptised early last century. A view of the Cleveland Hills, in the quiet of a small village graveyard.

graveyard

It was not a ceremonial moment: we were all family, and there was no-one to officiate but ourselves. Using trowels, we cleared away the stray grass and dead leaves in the lee of one of the pair of standing family gravestones, and then my mother opened the flask, and poured him out. We tried to bed the ash down, digging it into the soil, and in the mizzle there wasn’t much chance for him to be scattered, but that didn’t matter: we’d wanted him tight, fast to the earth, in the same spot as his wife had been similarly sown. A stout proud man, he’d been a sailor, an engineer, fought in the war, lived in Africa, and found his way home in the end. I was an archaeologist and I’ve dug many bodies, hating them every time for how they slowed me down and demanded care and attention to excavate and record, qualities I had little of as a trench-monkey. Here, though, was my grandfather’s cremated remains, and I was amazed at how much of him there was: not something to be flung from the fingertips like sand, but handfuls and handfuls, grey and black, shards and dust. And so we crouched there, turning this mound of powder into the damp ground, churning the charcoal-flecked ash with the soil from freshly-dug molehills next to the grave, bedding all that back into the earth.

Because I think too much, and most frequently about things that I shouldn’t, instead of standing solemnly and thinking about all the happy times I had had with my grandfather (not to mention how appropriate it was that he was uniting with the damp fertile soil when for most of the time I had known him he had so enjoyed producing flowers and vegetables out of his own small patch of it), I was instead mediating my feelings through others, thinking about the seventeenth-century doctor and philosopher Thomas Browne, and specifically about his essay on death and burial, Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall. Browne’s inquiry into the social and cultural articulations of funerary custom was caused by the discovery of cremated human remains in North Norfolk.

In a Field of old Walsingham, not many months past, were digged up between fourty and fifty Urnes, deposited in dry and sandy soile, not a yard deep, not far from one another: Not all strictly of one figure, but most answering these described; some containing two pounds of bones, distinguishable in skulls, ribs, jawes, thighbones, and teeth, with fresh impressions of their combustion.

His study of human remains spins out into an exploration of materiality, the nature of historical knowability, the futility of remembrance, and the nature of being human. Browne is like no other writer, a fact that many other people have expressed better than I ever could, and Hydriotaphia is like no other work of literature I have ever come across.

I came to Browne for the very first time through Borges’ short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (a piece I have already mentioned here, albeit pretty tangentially). I encountered Borges’ erudite name-dropping at a time when I was just beginning to grapple with the styles and processes of learning-as-task, and the mystical intricacies of esoteric names and books bleeding through the surface of the narrative delighted and aroused me in equal measure. Some names and works were known to me; others I assumed to be real, but I had yet to encounter them in my reading; a third category was revealed when I tried to find out more about Silas Haslam’s (non-existent) A General History of Labyrinths: those authors and volumes that Borges had invented for his narrative¹. I have little background in English literature, and at that point I had absolutely none in seventeenth-century literature of any kind, and thus the name of Sir Thomas Browne that makes a fleeting appearance at the end of Borges’ narrative was wholly unknown to me, and I was unable to discern which of the latter two categories he might belong to. Nor did I have any idea what a work of literature entitled ‘Urne-Buriall‘ might encompass (beyond the obvious), and I had absolutely no idea who Quevedo was. Then, in one of those particular co-incidences that in retrospect one re-examines and finds to be scarcely credible, I put down the volume of Borges short stories and picked up the next book on my to-read pile, The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. I read of the narrator’s desperate confinement in a Norwich hospital, and then in astonishment, of the tale of Thomas Browne’s skull, which had been interred in a church in that city upon his death in 1682, accidentally disinterred 150 years later, exhibited for display in the hospital museum, and finally restored to the ground in 1922². The remarks Sebald made about Browne’s works compelled me to seek them out, and upon returning to England in late summer of 2000 I finally got hold of an old copy of the Patrides 1977 collection for the Penguin Classics. I began, inevitably, with Hydriotaphia, and my obsession with his writing spiralled from there. I was fortunate to obtain other editions (including, most cherished, a gift of the six volume Keynes edition of the twenties). I visited the site of his grave, at St. Peter Mancroft in Norwich, and talked to the curate there who was kind enough to show me inside the vestry, and see the small collection of Browne relics(?) accumulated over the years, including his coffin-plate. I, like Sebald, followed the extraordinary odyssey of his skull, digging out of a neglected shelf a copy of the 1923 edition of the journal Biometrkia, wherein I found an extensive and thorough investigation of his cranial morphology. Another gift was a facsimile copy of the double portrait of he and his wife that is now in the collection of the NPG in London. Browne provided the epigraph of my doctoral thesis, and has managed to find his way into sufficent of my papers to have bemused those who know me.

Browne became an anchor for me at a time when it was far from clear whether or not I could make any sense from the material I was trying to collect and write about. It was to him I looked for a vindication that simple deep and wide reading could be a starting point in itself, that patterns (like the quincunx) might appear out if one collected and collated sufficient material, and that there should be no fear in traversing what appear to be defined disciplinary boundaries if you felt a strong enough urge to explore. His work further urged me to realise that the injection of the personal, the pulse of inquiry and wonderment, need not be discouraged if it could enlighten the narrative’s path. Unavoidably, Browne also taught me prose, and how to inhabit it, shape it, drive it, if not fully control or understand it. Writing, I turn again and again to Hydriotaphia, simply to read it and read it and read it. It lives, especially the final chapter, and it reaches unsurpassed heights.

The purpose of all of the greatest literature is to help us understand the journeys that we must make, those that are both inevitable and unique. Many times I’ve needed Browne, and read parts of his work over and over again³. Maybe then I shouldn’t have felt so bad that my grief over my grandfather’s death and the occasion of his commital to the earth and the wind was being refracted through the prism of Browne’s writings; articulations of loss are curious things, as Hydriotaphia itself tells us. Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us.

hydriotaphia

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¹ This was in an age before internet searches could be expected to point one towards reasonable information (or at least, it was beyond my capabilities to wring such information from the tubes). I looked Haslam up in the enormous green-bound catalogues at the university library where I was a graduate student. I note now that the relevant Wikipedia article gives a full list of the ‘fictive-ness’ of the story’s characters.

² It was something of a cascade of intertextuality, as Sebald not only describes Browne and his work in the first chapter of The Rings of Saturn, but he also manages a later reference to Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and at the end of the third chapter replays Browne’s appearance in it.

³ Who, after all, has not needed “Men that look upon my outside, perusing only my condition, and fortunes, do err in my altitude; for I am above Atlas his shoulders”; I might as well get that as a frickin’ tattoo, as it’ll sit nicely alongside the chip on my shoulder.

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