Thursday, 3 May 2012

Dealings with the Dead - 1856

Nil de mortuis nisi bonum. You will wonder where I got my Latin. If my profession consisted of nothing but digging and filling up—dust to dust, and ashes to ashes—I would not give a fig for it. To a sexton of any sentiment it is a very different affair. I have sometimes doubted, if it might not be ranked among the fine arts. To be sure, it is rather a melancholy craft; and for this very reason I have tried to solace myself, with the literary part of it. There is a great amount, of curious and interesting reading upon these marble pages, which the finger of time is ever turning over. I soon found, that a large part of it was in the Latin tongue, and I resolved to master so much of it, as impeded my progress. I have found, that many superb things are said of the defunct, in Latin, which no person, however partial, would venture to say, in plain English.
The Latin proverb, at the head of this article, I saw, on the gravestone of a poor fellow, who was killed, by a sort of devil incarnate, in the shape of a rumseller, though some persons thought he was worried to death, by moral suasion. Nothing of the dead but what is good: Well, I very much doubt the wisdom of this rule. The Egyptians doubted it; and their kings were kept in order, through a fear of the sentence to be passed upon their character and conduct, by an assembly of notables, summoned immediately after their decease. Montaigne says it is an excellent custom, and to be desired by all good princes, who have reason to be offended, that the memories of the wicked should be treated with the same respect, as their own.
In England and our own Commonwealth, we have, legislatively, repudiated this rule, in one instance, at least, until within a few years. I refer to the case of suicide. Instead of considering the account balanced by death, and treating the defunct with particular tenderness, because he was dead, the sheriff was ordered to bury the body of every person, felo de se, at the central point where four roads met, and to run a stake through his body. This, to say nothing of its cheating our brotherhood out of burial fees, seems a very awkward proceeding.
There is a pleasant tale, related of Sheriff Bradford, which I may repeat, without marring the course of these remarks. Mr. Bradford was the politest sheriff, that we ever had in Suffolk, not excepting Sheriff Sumner. Sheriff Bradford was a real gentleman, dyed in the wool. It did one’s heart good to see him serve an attachment, or levy an execution. Instead of knocking one down, and arresting him afterwards, Mr. Bradford made a pleasant affair of it. It actually seemed, as if he employed a sort of official ether, which took away the pain—he used, while placing his bailiff in a lady’s drawing-room, to bow and smile, so respectfully and sympathizingly; and, in a sotto voice, to talk so very clerically, of the instability of human affairs.

Saint Botolph
Banningham Parish Church
© Godric Godricson
An individual, within the sheriff’s precinct, cut his own throat. An officious neighbor, who was rather curious to see the stake part performed, brought tidings to Mr. Bradford, while at breakfast. The informant ventured to inquire, at what time the performances would commence. At precisely, this afternoon, the sheriff replied. He instantly dispatched a deputy to the son of the defunct, with a note, full of the most respectful expressions of condolence, and informing him, that the law required the sheriff to run a stake through his father’s body, if to be found within his precinct, and adding that he should call with the stake, at 5 P. M. The body was, of course, speedily removed, and non est inventus was the end of the whole matter. Civilization advanced—several of the upper ten thousand cut their throats, or blew their brains out; and it would have been troublesome to carry out the provisions of the law, and cost something for stakes. The law was repealed.
Some sort of ignominious sepulture, for self-murderers, was in vogue, long ago. Plato speaks of it, de legibus lib. ix., p. 660. The attempt to shelter mankind from deserved reproach, by putting complimentary epitaphs upon their gravestones, is very foolish. It commonly produces an opposite effect. One would think these names were intended as a hint, for the Devil, when he comes for his own—a sort of passover.
© Godric Godricson
I am inclined to think, if a grand inquest of any county were employed, to discover the last resting places of their neighbors and fellow-citizens, having no other guide, but their respective epitaphs, the names and dates having been previously removed or covered up, that inquest would be very much at a loss, in the midst of such exalted virtues, and supereminent talents, and extraordinary charities, and unbroken friendships, and great public services.
Some inscriptions are, perhaps, too simple. In the burying-ground at the corner of Arch and Sixth streets, Philadelphia, and very near that corner, lies a large flat slab, with these words:
“Benjamin and Deborah Franklin,
In Exeter, N. H., I once read an epitaph in the graveyard, near the Railroad Depot, in these words:
“Henry’s grave.”
Pope’s epitaph, in the garden of Lord Cobham, at Stow, on his Lordship’s Italian friend, was, doubtless, well-deserved, though savoring of panegyric:
To the memory
an Italian of good extraction,
who came into England
not to bite us, like most of his countrymen,
but to gain an honest livelihood.
He hunted not after fame,
yet acquired it.
Regardless of the praise of his friends,
But most sensible of their love,
Though he lived among the great,
He neither learned nor flattered any vice.
He was no bigot,
Though he doubted not the 39 articles.
And, if to follow nature,
And to respect the laws of society
Be philosophy,
He was a perfect philosopher,
A faithful friend,
An agreeable companion,
A loving husband,
Distinguished by a numerous offspring,
All which he lived to see take good courses.
In his old age he retired
To the house of a clergyman, in the country,
Where he finished his earthly race,
And died an honor and an example to the whole species.
This stone is guiltless of flattery;
For he, to whom it is inscribed,
Was not a man
but a

Project Gutenburg : Dealings with the Dead, Volume I (of 2)

Author: A Sexton of the Old School Boston 1856

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