To Dust You Shall Return

The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying.

-- Sir Thomas Browne

I confess I knew nothing about Sir Thomas Browne until I chanced upon this pithy maxim. A contemporary of John Milton and Moliere, Browne was an English physician and author whose erudite musings were studded with gems like the one above. It was contained in an essay on ancient Anglo-Saxon burial urns that was more broadly a meditation on human mortality. As a physician, Browne was no stranger to death, given the prevalence in the 17th century of epidemic diseases, such as small pox and plague, to say nothing of the carnage wrought by the English Civil War. Hitting closer to home, only four of Browne’s ten children survived him. Unlike our own time, when death is generally regarded as “the sound of distant thunder at a·picnic,” to borrow a phrase from W.H. Auden, Browne lived at a time when the subject could hardly be ignored.

I was struck by Browne’s turn of phase: “the long habit of living.” Browne lived to be 77, far longer than most of his contemporaries, and his essay was written relatively late. Life could indeed become habit-forming, notwithstanding all the opportunities in those days for premature demise. If something were merely done out of habit, could it really be said we were living life, or were we just going through the motions? And if we were paying little attention to life while we were living it, should we be surprised if death caught us napping?

Along comes an app, inelegantly dubbed WeCroak, to address this problem. Installed on your smart phone, WeCroak reminds you at random five times each day that your lease on life is subject to termination. You receive a notification telling you that you will die, followed by an inspirational quotation on matters of life or death. The point is not to rub your nose in your own mortality but to get you to appreciate life while you still have breath in you. Think of the young woman Emily who died in childbirth in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town. She is granted a wish to relive a single day of her life and is dismayed at how distracted everyone seems. "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize,” she laments. “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?"

The WeCroak app is inspired by a Bhutanese belief that one must contemplate death five times daily in order to find happiness. Granted that it can be difficult to remember to make time for such sober reflection in the midst of one’s daily rounds, the app marries technology to spiritual practice. Randomness is key, because we never know when or where death will find us. It could be an aneurysm, a massive stroke, a fatal heart attack or a stray bullet – a million and one ways to pull the plug. Just today I learned that a high-school classmate had died in a bicycling accident. Presumably he did not anticipate when he set out on his bike ride that it would be his last.

Long before smart phones could be programmed to send random death reminders, slaves were placed in the chariots of victorious Roman generals during triumphal processions to whisper in their ear, “Momento mori” – Latin for “remember you must die.” The Lord God said something similar to Adam as he was expelled from the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The same line is repeated each Ash Wednesday to mark the beginning of the penitential season of Lent in the Christian calendar, as priests smear ashes on the foreheads of the faithful.

Against the backdrop of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War in Europe, an anonymous 15th-century Dominican friar published a hugely popular handbook on death called Ars moriendi to instruct clergy and laity alike in the finer points of dying well. A shorter illustrated version published somewhat later cautioned that the best preparation for a good death was a good life, so that wise Christians “may die safely, every hour, when God will." In his final sermon as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the poet John Donne, reminded his congregation, “We have a winding-sheet in our mother's womb which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world wound up in that winding-sheet, for we come to seek a grave.” Donne, of course, is famously associated with the line, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls/The bell tolls for thee.”

Leave it to William Shakespeare to provide us with arguably the starkest reminder of our perishability: the graveyard scene in Hamlet. The young prince, soon to perish himself, holds the skull of the former jester in his father’s court, Yorick, once so quick of wit but now long dead. He tells a friend, “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest.” Then, directly addressing the grinning skull in his hand, he continues, “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning?”

We should explain why the gravedigger in this scene has exhumed Yorick’s body, which has been in the ground for some 23 years. The practice in those days was to dig up bodies after they had decomposed and to place the remains in a repository for human bones called an ossuary. This was to free up limited space in consecrated ground for the recently departed.

“Who knows the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?” Sir Thomas Browne had written in his essay on burial urns. “To be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking-bowls, and our bones turned into pipes to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abominations.” Given the burial practices in those days (Browne was born soon after Shakespeare wrote Hamlet), his query makes perfect sense. It was also prophetic. In 1840, a church sexton stole Browne’s skull from a damaged crypt in the chancel of St. Peter Mancroft Church in Norfolk. The sexton sold the skull to a local surgeon, who eventually deeded it the Museum of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospitall, where it was kept for the next 82 years. A photograph of the skull, mounted on two of Browne’s books, was even used as the frontispiece to the 1904 edition of his collected works. The story ended happily for Browne’s earthly remains, however. In 1922, the skull was returned to the church and reunited with the rest of his body. The skull was dutifully entered in the parish burial registry, with the age listed as 317 years. May Sir Thomas Browne finally rest in peace!

Sir Thomas Browne, Urne-Buriall (1658)
John Donne, "For Whom the Bell Tolls"

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