TO MR. BROOKFIELD
September 16, 1849
Have you read Dickens? Oh, it is charming! Brave Dickens!
“David Copperfield” has some of his prettiest touches,
and the reading of the book has done another author a
great deal of good.
There are certain good old ladies in every community who wear perennial mourning. They attend every funeral, carrying black-bordered handkerchiefs, and weep gently at the right time. I have made it a point to hunt out these ancient dames at their homes, and, over the teacups, I have discovered that invariably they enjoy a sweet peace–a happiness with contentment–that is a great gain. They seem to be civilization’s rudimentary relic of the Irish keeners and the paid mourners of the Orient.
And there is just a little of this tendency to mourn with those who mourn in all mankind. It is not difficult to bear another’s woe–and then there is always a grain of mitigation, even in the sorrow of the afflicted, that makes their tribulation bearable.
Burke affirms, in “On the Sublime,” that all men take a certain satisfaction in the disasters of others. Just as Frenchmen lift their hats when a funeral passes and thank God that they are not in the hearse, so do we in the presence of calamity thank Heaven that it is not ours.
Perhaps this is why I get a strange delight from walking through a graveyard by night. All about are the white monuments that glisten in the ghostly starlight, the night-wind sighs softly among the grassy mounds–all else is silent–still.
This is the city of the dead, and of all the hundreds or thousands who have traveled to this spot over long and weary miles, I, only I, have the power to leave at will. Their ears are stopped, their eyes are closed, their hands are folded–but I am alive.
One of the first places I visited on reaching London was Kensal Green Cemetery. I quickly made the acquaintance of the First Gravedigger, a rare wit, over whose gray head have passed full seventy pleasant summers. I presented him a copy of “The Shroud,” the organ of the American Undertakers’ Association, published at Syracuse, New York. I subscribe for “The Shroud” because it has a bright wit-and-humor column, and also for the sweet satisfaction of knowing that there is still virtue left in Syracuse.
The First Gravedigger greeted me courteously, and when I explained briefly my posthumous predilections we grasped hands across an open grave (that he had just digged) and were fast friends.
“Do you believe in cremation, sir?” he asked.
“No, never; it’s pagan.”
“Aye, you are a gentleman–and about burying folks in churches?”
“Never! A grave should be out under the open sky, where the sun by day and the moon and stars—-“
“Right you are. How Shakespeare can ever stand it to have his grave walked over by a boy choir is more than I can understand. If I had him here I could look after him right. Come, I’ll show you the company I keep!”
Not twenty feet from where we stood was a fine but plain granite block to the memory of the second wife of James Russell Lowell.
“Just Mr. Lowell and one friend stood by the grave when we lowered the coffin–just two men and no one else but the young clergyman who belongs here. Mr. Lowell shook hands with me when he went away. He gave me a guinea and wrote me two letters afterward from America; the last was sent only a week before he died. I’ll show ’em to you when we go to the office. Say, did you know him?”
He pointed to a slab, on which I read the name of Sydney Smith. Then we went to the graves of Mulready, the painter; Kemble, the actor; Sir Charles Eastlake, the artist. Next came the resting-place of Buckle–immortal for writing a preface–dead at thirty-seven, with his history unwrit; Leigh Hunt sleeps near, and above his dust a column that explains how it was erected by friends. In life he asked for bread; when dead they gave him a costly pile of stone.