Friday, 13 April 2012

Dealings with the dead - 1856

Project Gutenburg
"Throw aside whatever I send you, if you do not like it, as we throw aside the old bones, when making a new grave; and preserve only what you think of any value—with a slight difference—you will publish it, and we shouldn’t. I was so fond of using the thing, which I have now in my hand, when a boy, that my father thought I should never succeed with the mattock and spade—he often shook his head, and said I should never make a sexton. He was mistaken. He was a shrewd old man, and I got many a valuable hint from him. “Abner,” said he to me one day, when he saw me bowing, very obsequiously, to a very old lady, “don’t do so, Abner; old folks are never pleased with such attentions, from people of your profession. They consider all personal approaches, from one of your fraternity, as wholly premature. It brings up unpleasant anticipations.” Father was right; and, when I meet a very old, or feeble, or nervous gentleman, or lady, I always walk fast, and look the other way.
Sextons have greatly improved within the last half century. In old times, they kept up too close an intimacy with young surgeons; and, to keep up their spirits, in cold vaults, they formed too close an alliance with certain evil spirits, such as gin, rum, and brandy. We have greatly improved, as a class, and are destined, I trust, to still greater elevation. A few of us are thinking of getting incorporated. I have read—I read a great deal—I have carried a book, of some sort, in my pocket for fifty years—no profession loses so much time, in mere waiting, as ours—I have read, that the barbers and surgeons of London were incorporated, as one company, in the time of Henry VIII. There is certainly a much closer relation, between the surgeons and sextons, than between the barbers and surgeons, since we put the finishing hand to their work. And as every body is getting incorporated now-a-days, I see no good reason against our being incorporated, as a society of sextons and surgeons. And then our toils and vexations would, in some measure, be solaced, by pleasant meetings and convivial suppers, at which the surgeons would cut up roast turkeys, and the sextons might bury their sorrows. When sextons have no particular digging to do, out of doors, it seems well enough for them to dig in their closets. There is a great amount of information to be gained from books, particularly adapted to their profession, some of which is practical, and some of which, though not of that description, is of a much more profitable character than police reports of rapes and murders, or the histories of family quarrels, or interminable rumors of battles and bloodshed. There is a learned blacksmith; who knows but there may spring up a learned sexton, some of these days.
The dealings with the dead, since the world began, furnish matter for curious speculation. What has seemed meet and right, in one age or nation, has appeared absurd and even monstrous in another. It is also interesting to contemplate the many strange dispositions, which certain individuals have directed to be made, in regard to their poor remains. Men, who seem not to have paid much attention to their souls, have provided, in the most careful and curious manner, for the preservation of their miserable carcasses. It may also furnish matter for legitimate inquiry, how far it may be wise, and prudent, and in good taste, to carry our love of finery into the place, appropriated for all living. Aristocracy among the dead! What a thought. Sumptuary considerations are here involved. The rivalry of the tomb! The pride—not of life—but of death! How frequently have I seen, especially among the Irish, the practice of a species of pious fraud upon the baker and the milk man, whose bills were never to be paid, while all the scrapings of the defunct were bestowed upon the “birril!” The principle is one and the same, when men, in higher walks, put costly monuments over the ashes of their dead, and their effects into the hands of assignees. And then the pageantry and grandiloquence of the epitaph! In the course of fifty years, what outrageous lies I have seen, done in marble! Perhaps I may say something of these matters—perhaps not."

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