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IX

THE HORRORS OF THE GRAVE ALSO DO NOT BELONG TO DEATH

DEATH, as we usually picture it, has two terrors looming behind it. The first has neither face nor shape and overshadows the whole region of our mind; the other is more definite, more explicit, but almost as powerful and strikes all our senses. Let us first examine the latter.

Even as we impute to death all the evils that precede it, so do we add to the dread which it inspires all that happens beyond it, thus doing it the same injustice at its going as at its coming. Is it death that digs our graves and orders us to keep there that which was made to disappear? If we cannot think without horror of the fate of the beloved in the grave, is it death or we that placed him there? Because death carries the spirit to some place unknown, shall we reproach it with our bestowal of the body which it leaves with us? Death descends upon us to take away a life or change its form: let us judge it by what it does and not by what we do before it comes and after it is gone. And it is already far away when we begin the frightful work which we try hard to prolong as much as we possibly can, as though we were persuaded that it is our only security against forgetfulness. I am well aware that, from any other than the human point of view, this proceeding is very innoxious. Looked upon from a sufficient height, decomposing flesh is no more repulsive than a fading flower or a crumbling stone. But, when all is said, it offends our senses, shocks our memory, daunts our courage, whereas it would be so easy for us to avoid the hateful test. Purified by fire, the memory lives in the heights as a beautiful idea; and death is naught but an immortal birth cradled in flames. This has been well understood by the wisest and happiest nations in history. What happens in our graves poisons our thoughts together with our bodies. The  figure of death, in the imagination of men, depends before all upon the form of burial; and the funeral rites govern not only the fate of those who depart, but also the happiness of those who stay, for they raise in the very background of life the great image upon which their eyes linger in consolation or despair.


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