Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial

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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.

Title-page of 1658 edition of 'Urn-Burial' together with 'The Garden of Cyrus'.

Its nominal subject was the discovery of a Roman[1] 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 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 in which 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.

Some sentences of the 5th chapter were cited by Edgar Allan Poe at the beginning of his The Murders in the Rue Morgue.


Urn Burial has also been admired by Charles Lamb, Samuel Johnson, John Cowper Powys, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, and George Saintsbury who called it "the longest piece, perhaps, of absolutely sublime rhetoric to be found in the prose literature of the world," while Ralph Waldo Emerson said that it "smells in every word of the sepulchre."[2] Browne's text is alluded to in W.G. Sebald's novel The Rings of Saturn.[citation needed] It is also 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.

The English composer William Alwyn wrote his Symphony No. 5, subtitled Hydriotaphia in homage to Browne's imagery and rhythmic prose.


  1. ^ The Major Works ed. C. A. Patrides Penguin 1977
  2. ^ Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson: with annotations, Volume 1

External links[edit]

  • [1] Text of Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial and The Garden of Cyrus