Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial is a Treatise written by Sir T. Browne and published (with the ‘Garden of Cyrus’s) in 1658. Browne studied medicine and practiced as a doctor for the rest of his life. He was untouched by the tumult of his time. His works, though produced during the Civil War, show full tranquility.
Browne’s first book Religio Medici is a confession of Christian faith. It includes two beautiful prayers in verse hued with fancy and deep erudition.
Hydriotaphia or Urn Burial (1658) is a profoundly moving and meditative essay on death and funeral customs. Browne got the inspiration from the discovery of some ancient sepulchral urns in Norfolk that prompted him to write it. The author does not give us the outer description of these urns but there is a train of meditation on oblivion after man’s life – that is death – on earth. Furthermore, he considers the various ways of disposal of the dead recorded in history and practiced in Britain. They were urns, funeral ceremonies, and immortality or annihilation. In reality, it has an array of charming reflections on the mutability of mocking-time and the futility of immortality.
In this book, Browne’s imagination deepens the probing descriptions of burial modes. It has richly composed diction which harmonizes with elevated and fragile mystical thoughts. There is Latinized monody, incapable of throwing out of times its musical qualities. There are huge sweep of though; teste: the closing chapter that climaxes the thought is superb. It shows the perishable quality of all earthly memorials, from urn to pyramid – in perpetuating the memory of man. It also points out that the monuments are inferior compared to noble deeds.
The tone of Urn Burial is meditative and mystical. It contains forty or fifty pages of the most beautiful English ever written and probably the greatest piece of sustained eloquence in prose.