Item of the Day: New-York Magazine (1794)

Full Title: The New-York Magazine; or, Literary Repository: For October, 1794. Number X — Vol. V. Containing: Receipt for the Whooping Cough, Letters from a Father to his Son, It will do for the Present, Any other Time will do as well, An extraordinary Character, Story of Choang and Hansi, Memoirs of the Count de Benyowisky, Imitations of Sterne, Rewards of Avarice, Sentimental Fragment, Observations on Burying the Dead, Refections on Time, Arrest of the Commissioners of the Convention by Dumourier, The Nun, The Amrican Muse. ORIGINAL. The Cestus of Venus, To War, To George Washington, To Anna Matilda, Sonnet, SELECTED. Hymns on Content, Official Account of General Wayne’s Defeat of the Indians, Monthly Register. Foreign Department, Domestic Occurrences, Marriages, Deaths, With a map, exhibiting a Sketch of the Ground at the Rapids of the Miami of the Lake, shewing the Position of General Wayne’s Army previous to and after the Action of the 20th of August, 1794. New-York: Printed and published by T. and J. Swords, No. 167, William-street, 1794.



MUCH has been said and written on the pernicious tendencies of burying the dead in cities, particularly in vaults; notwithstanding, the least reformation has not taken place. So difficult is it to persuade men of any innovation in customs, which have become habitual, however improper they may be. Governments and laws have been materially altered with less impunity than altering a road, abolishing the practice of wearing long beards, or reforming the mode of dress; —Attention is intended to be arrested by these observations to a reconsideration of this interesting subject.

The practice of interring the dead in vaults may be traced to the ancient Egyptians. A superstitious opinion prevailed among that people, that the soul or spirit remained by the body, and would continue to do so for three thousand years, providing that it continued free from putrefaction, and that at the expiration of this period, reanimation , would take place; but if the body became noxious, the soul would take a disgust and depart. This gave origin to the custom of embalming or imbuing the flesh with fine essential oils. The body being thus preserved from the action of septic powers, it was necessary that it should be placed in a situation to secure it from the injuries of time and chance, till the period of resuscitation arrived. This gave rise to the erection of sepulchres [sic], which were magnificent and durable according to the abilities of the persons for whom they were constructed. The pyramids and labyrinth of Egypt were no doubt built for this purpose by the kings of that country. Travellers give an account of their having found in them chambers very difficult of access, made in the most curious and lasting manner, in which were contained marble coffins and broken vases. One use of the celebrated Spinx [sic] was that of a sepulchre. Whole plains of mummies have been found inclosed in tombs of stones. It is probable that the Jews obtained their mode of interment from the Egyptians. The Greeks and Romans had their mausoleums, monuments, tombs, and cenotaphs, which were erected for princes, and those who have been called the grandees of the earth. This practice was imitated by the inferior classes of society upon the small scale; they had their columellae, labella, arcae, &c. When the custom of burning the bodies of the dead was introduced, it gave rise to the construction of urnae, ampulae, cupae, phialae, thecae, ollae, dolia, lamina, and other vessels for containing the bones or ashes of the dead. —A revolution in the opinion respecting the soul has caused the practice of embalming to be neglected; but pride and superstition have perpetuated the mode of interring. The practice of the primitive nations was no so pernicious as the one followed in this civilized country; they either embalmed, burned, or used some other means with the body to prevent it from becoming noxious. Is it not time that the vanity of individuals should be sacrificed to the public good? Do we boast of advanced civilization, and of having acquired the experience of ages? In this, as in many other respects, principle and practice maintain perpetual war. Men progress in iopinions, but in practice remain the same.

Why will poor mortals, the insects of a day, desire to rot in state? does distinction exist in the grave? Does property make the body more valuable after death? Will it alter the composition of a bone, or cause the blood to yield different principles on analysis? No; the worm shall glut itself on the pampered flesh of luxury as well as on that of poverty; it shall return to its original elements, and go to perpetuate the existence of other beings. Matter is doomed to go its round. Man feeds on other organized beings; at death he returns to airs, water and earth, which are absorbed by the roots and leaves of vegetables; the inferior animals are supported by these, and man again maintains his existence by preying on those. Pride and caprice may retard these change, and frustrate nature for a while, but happily for the succeeding inhabitants of this earth, they cannot eventually prevent them.

Death, in our world, is rendered necessary on account of the rapid increase of beings, and is, according to the establishment of the present system a blessing. If every creature was to continue on this stage of existence, the world would soon be overstocked; the means of subsistence would be wanting; even the elements themselves would be exhausted. Generations rise out of the ruins of those which preceded, and give way to make room for succeeding ones. All animated nature is supported by the successive decompositions and renovations of its parts. Stupendous system! where beings originate, progress and finally die to prepare the world for others, where ignorance and vice are made useful after death. . . .



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Filed under 1790's, Burial rites, Culture, Magazine, New York, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

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