I recently reread Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, a meditation on an archaeological site published by the sadly rarely read, but always revered Thomas Browne in 1658. I don't reread books often-- there seem to be too many things I haven't read once to get around to reading something twice-- but it's quite short, and things were slow. The clouds were gathering over the city, in more ways than one, and it seemed the perfect time to read something dark and quiet and half-remembered.
I can remember so distinctly when I first read Thomas Browne, when I was staying for a week at a couple of friends' apartment on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. And I can remember the way the light cast down on the paper, the Italic headings in an old 19th Century copy of Browne's complete works from the library. The recurring mental image was of two men, with pointed beards and black cloaks, on a chilly autumn morning, with ravens in naked trees on the flat plains of Norfolk, standing before an open pit in the black earth, a broken ceramic jar at the bottom lying in a pool of stagnant water, maybe a workman with a rough country accent digging through the sandy soil. Browne-- or at least the face engraved on the frontispiece-- staring up at a gray English sky, watching the birds fly upwards. His melancholy, his facing the tombs of dead pagans, immediately confronting his faith in the Protestant God and the emerging scientific practice that marked the dawning Age of Reason, which he believed to be symbolized in the eternal quincunx, the latticed form that he believed marked the soul of all things.
It was about a year after that cold day in Seattle that I stood in a field on the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos, with the first burial urns I recognized as such, or rather things generally figured by the archaeologists to be burial urns-- the local people believed them to be where the gods and giants kept their lao khao, the harsh, grainy rice wine of Laos and Thailand, which I'd drank that morning, scalding hot from a still.
Did I think of my image of Thomas Browne in his field on that day? Or was the sunlight, the clang of cowbells on high mountain meadows, the high spirits of a holiday, even in a necropolis, strong enough to dissuade me?
And when I think, now, of Thomas Browne, I am not thinking of him amid ancient ruins. My thoughts wander in that direction on days when the sunset seems sickly, when there's a sourness in the pit of my stomach, when my apartment seems a sepulcher.
And was that image based on anything? For all I know, Browne could have visited his urns on a bright summer day, with skylarks instead of ravens and trees full of flowers. My image of Thomas Browne is more informed by his followers-- the morose wanderer W.G. Sebald, the blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, the sensitive suicide Virginia Woolf. And on the whole, images of death, such as this, are probably more at home in Hollywood than in our lives.
I did feel a distinct sense of death in the jars, as I walked delicately along the margins of rice paddies. This area, a plateau in the Lao highlands was made briefly infamous by Lyndon Johnson's clandestine use of the local Hmong people as a proxy army as part of America's decade-long folly in Southeast Asia. The burial urns now share space with minefields and caved-in Pathet Lao trenches. Missile casings are turned into fenceposts, hotels keep rusty Kalashnikovs as souvenirs. The death I felt there was not cosmic, but immediate, the very real possibility that I would meet a sudden, violent end if I strayed from the marked path.
Which tells me how separate death is from its avatars. We dress up death in images, turn it into mossy churchyards and widows in black crepe. Death is irrational, unbounded by human metaphor. It is the full catheter and labored breathing of a much-loved relative in a chilly hospital room, the idiotic expression of a corpse by a roadside, half-seen through a car window.