For the dying, I cannot prevaricate,
I bring no whining or praying or tears,
No shuffling consolation of doctors and priests,
But treating them and talking to them courageously.
Remember if you are dying, that you are dying—
Is it so then?
If it be so, let others tell you what they please,
I am exact and merciless, but I love you,
I tell the truth; I tell with unvarying voice—
There is no escape for you,
And may kind fingers shield you in the hour of death.
I have watch’d the death-hours of the old, and seen the infant die.
The rich, with all his nurses and doctors—
Fever burned his blood, and sharp pains racked him,
The death-howl, the limpsy tumbling body,
And then came the dismissal of oblivion.
The poor, in meagerness and poverty—
Our love grew fast and close, the days and nights by the chair of rapid decline, and the bed of death.
The dull nights go over and the dull days also,
The soreness of lying so much in bed goes over.
The physician placing his ear flat on the breast of the motionless body, to see if it has any life in its heart,
After long putting off gives the silent and terrible look for an answer.
The children come hurried and weeping, and the brothers and sisters are sent for,
Medicines stand unused on the shelf.
The faithful hand of the living does not desert the hand of the dying,
The twitching lips press lightly on the forehead of the dying,
Those last words, valuable beyond measure, confirm and endorse the varied facts, theories, and faith of the whole preceding life.
At thy portals also death,
Entering thy sovereign, dim, illimitable grounds,
The breath ceases and the pulse of the heart ceases,
And so the flame of the lamp, after long wasting and flickering, has gone out entirely.
The corpse stretches on the bed and the living look upon it,
It is palpable as the living are palpable,
See, from dead lips the ooze exuding at last,
Death’s ooze already begins its little bubbles,
See, the prismatic colors glistening and rolling.
With the great cloud darkening the land, journeys a coffin,
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
The shape measur’d, saw’d, jack’d, join’d, stain’d,
The coffin-shape for the dead to lie within in his shroud.
I love well the martial dirge, the melancholy rhythm,
Leading the funeral procession, long and winding,
Powerful psalm with voice of uttermost woe,
Loud human song, song of the bleeding throat,
With slow wail and convulsive throb.
Steady the trot to the cemetery,
Duly rattles the death-bell,
An unceasing death-bell tolls there,
With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang.
The funeral ranks approaching, slow—how slow, and how long,
Burial coaches enter the arch’d gates of the cemetery,
How noiseless entering the old gate and treading on that never-mowed grass.
The gate is pass’d—see the white tombstones, group after group, some far, and some near,
(I notice that they put their dead in singularly dreary and dismal spots.)
The new-dug grave is halted at, the waiting depot,
The arriving coffin and the sombre faces,
The living alight, the hearse uncloses,
The coffin is pass’d out, lower’d and settled, placed on the trestles,
Sorrowful, melancholy, funereal words pour’d around the coffin.
The lid silently taken off, the rest look on the face of the corpse,
The living look upon the corpse with their eyesight,
(What weeping face is that looking? is it to wet the soil of graves?)
But without eyesight lingers a different living and looks curiously on the corpse;
On the frontiers to eyes impenetrable,
Some soul is passing over—
Some parturition, some solemn immortal birth.
Then they screw the lid on for the last time,
And then the burial—
Swiftly and out of sight is borne the brave corpse,
The earth is swiftly shovel’d in—the mound above is flatted with the spades.
Then after burying, mourning the dead—
A pause, a minute—no one moves or speaks—it is done,
He is decently put away—is there anything more?
After which the people leave and return home,
And that was his funeral.
Most formal funerals are insults; they belittle the dead—
If anything should be honest, a funeral should be honest.
O thou within this tomb, pondering on thee,
A thought to launch in memory of thee,
A burial verse for thee:
I am become a shroud,
I wrap a body and lie in the coffin with it,
Nigh the coffin’d corpse when all is still, examining with a candle.
It is dark here under ground, it is not evil or pain here, it is blank here, for reasons—
There’s a calm to throbbing hearts, and rest, down in the tomb.
The vulgar and the refined, to think how wide a difference,
To think the difference will still continue to others, yet we lie beyond the difference.
There is always the deepest eloquence of sermon or poem in any of these ancient graveyards. By blood, by marriage, or some or another tie, thousands are yet connected there in those old graveyards.
To memories of my mother,
To her, the ideal woman, the best,
I grave a monumental line, and set a tombstone here.
Many the burials, many the days and nights, passing away.
As the dead in their graves are underfoot hidden,
The living pass over them, recking not of them,
Not a single inscription upon the stones could be made out with ease, and only a few could be made out at all;
Many of the inscriptions must be really interesting if one could only make them out.
Could it be that coffins, six feet below where I stood, enclosed the ashes of young men, whose vestments, during life, had engrossed anxious care—and schoolboys and beautiful women? For they too were buried here, as well as the aged and infirm.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers,
And the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
Soon every trace of them to be utterly rubbed out,
But a few years more and the old graveyards have had their bones and coffins dug up from the earth,
Old charnel ashes, scales and splints of mouldy bones,
Once living men—once resolute courage, aspiration, strength.
A row of magnificent stores will uprise and be completed on this ground,
And already the places that knew them, know them no more,
The recollection of the former sacredness of the spot will have passed entirely away—
A fit illustration of the rapid changes, of the kaleidoscope of alteration and death we call life.
Out there in the fashionable thoroughfare, how bustling was life, how gay that throng! Light laughs came from them, and jolly talk; how jauntily they wandered close along the side of those warnings of inevitable end.
Those groups of well-dressed young men troubled themselves not yet with gloomy thoughts—
And that showed more philosophy in them perhaps than such sentimental meditations as any the reader has been perusing.
To think how eager we are in building our houses,
To think how much pleasure there is,
But in due time you and I shall take less interest in them;
To take interest is well, and not to take interest shall be well.
I hear you whispering there, O grass of graves—
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life.
If the corpse of anyone I love be burn’d—
Or my own corpse, myself discharging my excrementitious body—
Soon to chemically dissolve in ashes, render’d to powder, and pour’d in the sea,
I shall be satisfied,
Or if it be distributed to the winds, I shall be satisfied,
Or if it be scattered on the earth, I shall be satisfied;
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.
My dead absorb, absorb them well, O my earth,
I charge you lose not an atom,
And you streams absorb them well,
And you local spots, and you airs that swim above lightly impalpable,
And all you essences of soil and growth, and you my rivers’ depths,
And you mountainsides and woods,
And you trees down in your roots, to bequeath to all future trees—
My dead absorb, which holding in trust faithfully give back again many a year hence.
In unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence,
In blowing airs from the fields back again give,
Exhale them centuries hence, let not an atom be lost.
O years! O air and soil! O an aroma sweet!
Exhale them perennial sweet death, years, centuries hence,
Make these ashes to nourish and blossom,
Returning to the purifications, further offices, eternal uses of the earth—
Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost.
NEXT: PRAISE OF DEATH