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preparations wherewith we set it out, that more terrify us than the thing itself; a new, quite contrary way of living, the cries of mothers, wives, and children, the visits of astonished and affected friends, the attendance of pale and blubbered servants, a dark room set round with burning tapers, our beds environed with physicians and divines; in fine, nothing but ghostliness and horror round about us, render it so formidable, that a man almost fancies himself dead and buried already. Children are afraid even of those they love best, and are best acquainted with, when disguised in a vizor, and so are we; the vizor must be removed as well from things as persons; which being taken away, we shall find nothing underneath but the very same death that a mean servant, or a poor chambermaid, died a day or two ago, without any manner of apprehension or concern.
“Men feare death as children feare to goe in the darke ; and as that natural feare in children is increased with tales, so in the other. Certainly the contemplation of death as the wages of sinne, and passage to another world, is holy and religious ; but the feare of it as a tribute due unto nature, is weake. Yet in religious meditations there is sometimes mixture of vanitie and of superstition. You shal reade in some of the friars' books of mortification, that a man should thinke unto himself what the paine is if he have but his finger-end pressed or tortured ; and thereby imagine what the paines of death are when the whole body is corrupted and dissolved; when many times death passeth with lesse paine than the torture of a Lemme. For the most vitall parts are not the quickest of sense. Groanes and convulsions, and a discoloured face, and friends weeping, and blackes and obsequies, and the like, shew death terrible. It is worthy the observing, that there is no passion in the minde of man so weake but it mates and masters the feare of death ; and therefore death is no such terrible enemy when a man hath so many attendants about him that can winne the combat of him. Revenge triumphs over death, love subjects it, honour aspireth to it, griefe fleeth to it, feare pre-occupieth it; nay, we read, after Otho the emperour had slaine himselfe, pitty, (which is the tenderest of affections,) provoked many to die, out of meer compassion to their soveraigne, and as the truest sort of followers.
It is as naturall to die as to be borne ; and to a little infant, perhaps, the one is as painfull as the other. He that dies in an earnest pursuit is like one that is wounded in hot blood, who for the time scarce feels the hurt; and, therefore, a minde fixt and bent upon somewhat that is good, doth avert the sadness of death. But above all, believe it, the sweetest canticle is, Nunc Dimittis, when a man hath obtained worthy ends and expectations. Death hath this also ; that it openeth the gate to good fame, and extinguisheth envie."*
These sentences of the great essayists are brave and ineffectual as Leonidas and his Greeks. Death cares very little for sarcasm or trope; hurl at him a javelin or a rose, it is all one. We build around ourselves ramparts of stoical maxims, edifying to witness, but when the terror comes these yield as the knots of river flags to the shoulder of Behemoth.
Death is terrible only in presence. When distant, or supposed to be distant, we can call him hard or tender names, nay, even poke our poor fun at him. Mr Punch, on one occasion, when he wished to ridicule the useful-information leanings of a certain periodical publication, quoted from its pages the sentence, “Man is mortal,” and people were found to grin broadly over the exquisite stroke of humour. Certainly the words, and the fact they contain, are trite enough. Utter the sentence gravely in any company, and you are certain to provoke laughter. And yet some subtle recognition of the fact of death runs constantly through the warp and woof of the most ordinary human exist
And this recognition does not always terrify. The spectre has the most cunning disguises, and often when near us we are unaware of the fact of
proximity. Unsuspected, this idea of death lurks in the sweetness of music; it has something to do with the pleasure with which we behold the vapours of morning; it comes between the passionate lips of lovers; it lives in the thrill of kisses. “An inch deeper, and you will find the emperor." Probe joy to its last
fibre, and you will find death. And it is the most merciful of all the merciful provisions of nature, that a haunting sense of insecurity should deepen the enjoyment of what we have secured ; that the pleasure of our warm human day and its activities should to some extent arise from a vague consciousness of the waste night which environs it, in which no arm is raised, in which no voice is ever heard. Death is the ugly fact which nature has to hide, and she hides it well. Human life were otherwise an impossibility. The pantomime runs on merrily enough; but when once Harlequin lifts his vizor, Columbine disappears, the jest is frozen on the Clown's lips, and the hand of the filching Pantaloon is arrested in the act. Wherever death looks, there is silence and trembling. But although on every man he will one day or another look, he is coy of revealing himself till the appointed time. He makes his approaches like an Indian warrior, under covers and ambushes. We have our parts to play, and he remains hooded till they are played out. We are agitated by our passions, we busily pursue our ambitions, we are acquiring money or reputation, and all at once, in the centre of our desires, we discover the “Shadow feared of man.” And so nature fools the
human mortal evermore. When she means to be deadly, she dresses her face in smiles; when she selects a victim, she sends him a poisoned rose. There is no pleasure, no shape of good fortune, no form of glory in which
death has not hid himself, and waited silently for his prey.
And death is the most ordinary thing in the world. It is as common as births; it is of more frequent occurrence than marriages and the attainment of majorities. But the difference between death and other forms of human experience lies in this, that we can gain no information about it. The dead man is wise, but he is silent. We cannot wring his secret from him. We cannot interpret the ineffable calm which gathers on the rigid face. As a consequence, when our thought rests on death we are smitten with isolation and loneliness. We are without company on the dark road; and we have advanced so far upon it that we cannot hear the voices of our friends. It is in this sense of loneliness, this consciousness of identity and nothing more, that the terror of dying consists. And yet, compared to that road, the most populous thoroughfare of London or Pekin is a desert. What enumerator will take for us the census of the dead ? And this matter of death and dying, like most things else in the world, may be exaggerated by our own fears and hopes. Death, terrible to look forward to, may be pleasant even to look back at.
Could we be admitted to the happy fields, and hear the conversations which blessed spirits hold, one might discover that to conquer death a man has but to die ; that by that act terror is softened into familiarity, and that the remembrance of death becomes but as the remembrance of