The Process of Death and Burial


Remember if you are dying, that you are dying—
Is it so then?
If it be so, I bring no shuffling consolation of doctors and priests,
(For the dying, treating them and talking to them courageously,
No whining or praying or tears,)

I am melancholy and stern, but I love you,
I tell the truth; I tell with unvarying voice.
I must not deceive you—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.

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.

Steady the trot to the cemetery,
Through day and night, 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,
With slow wail and convulsive throb leading the funeral,
Procession long and winding, duly rattles the death-bell,  

With dirges through the night—sorrowful, melancholy, funereal words,
With the tolling, tolling bells’ perpetual clang.

The funeral ranks approaching, slow—how slow, and how long,
Where 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.
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 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.

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.

O thou within this tomb, pondering on thee,
A thought to launch in memory of thee,
A burial verse for thee:
To think how eager we are in building our houses,
To think others shall be just as eager, and we quite indifferent.
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.
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. Could it be that coffins, six feet below where I stood, enclosed the ashes of like young men, whose vestments, during life, had engrossed the same anxious care—and schoolboys and beautiful women? For they too were buried here, as well as the aged and infirm.

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.
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,
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.

But out there in the fashionable thoroughfare, how bustling was life, how gay that throng!
Light laughs came from them, and jolly talk.
Onward rolled the broad, bright current,
The thick crowds, well-dressed—the continual crowds as if they would never end,
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.

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 any one I love,
Or if my own corpse—myself discharging my excrementitious body—
Be burn’d, 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.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost.

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.

NEXT: PRAISE OF DEATH