Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial
Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk, is a work by Sir Thomas Browne, published in 1658 as the first part of a two-part work that concludes with The Garden of Cyrus.
Its nominal subject was the discovery of a Roman urn burial in Norfolk. The discovery of these remains prompts Browne to deliver, first, a description of the antiquities found, and then a survey of most of the burial and funerary customs, ancient and current, of which his era was aware.
The most famous part of the work, though, is the fifth chapter, where Browne turns to discuss man's struggles with mortality, and the uncertainty of his fate and fame in this world and the next, to produce an extended funerary meditation tinged with melancholia.
George Saintsbury called it "the longest piece, perhaps, of absolutely sublime rhetoric to be found in the prose literature of the world," The following is a sample of the text. Browne rhetorically asks:
- What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling 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.
Urn Burial has been admired by Charles Lamb, Samuel Johnson, John Cowper Powys, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said of it that it "smells in every word of the sepulchre." The text is also featured in a meditation on the nature of melancholy in W.G. Sebald's novel The Rings of Saturn.
Some sentences of the 5th chapter were cited by Edgar Allan Poe at the beginning of The Murders in the Rue Morgue: "What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling Questions are not beyond all conjecture."
English composer William Alwyn wrote his Symphony No. 5, subtitled Hydriotaphia, in homage to its rhythmic prose and imagery.
It is cited by Penelope Lively to furnish the title of her novel "Treasures of Time" and in the text (Ch 3). Archaeology and the influence of the past on the present being a major theme of her novel.
- 'Religio Medici, Hydriotaphia, and the Letter to a Friend (Revised Edition)' Thomas Browne, Echo Library : 2007
- Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson: with annotations, Volume 1
-  Text of Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus