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13. The Views Of The Erewhonians Concerning Death
The Erewhonians regard death with less abhorrence than disease. If it is an offence at all,
it is one beyond the reach of the law, which is therefore silent on the subject; but they
insist that the greater number of those who are commonly said to die, have never yet been
born--not, at least, into that unseen world which is alone worthy of consideration. As
regards this unseen world I understand them to say that some miscarry in respect to it
before they have even reached the seen, and some after, while few are ever truly born into
it at all--the greater part of all the men and women over the whole country miscarrying
before they reach it. And they say that this does not matter so much as we think it does.
As for what we call death, they argue that too much has been made of it. The mere
knowledge that we shall one day die does not make us very unhappy; no one thinks that
he or she will escape, so that none are disappointed. We do not care greatly even though
we know that we have not long to live; the only thing that would seriously affect us
would be the knowing--or rather thinking that we know-- the precise moment at which
the blow will fall. Happily no one can ever certainly know this, though many try to make
themselves miserable by endeavouring to find it out. It seems as though there were some
power somewhere which mercifully stays us from putting that sting into the tail of death,
which we would put there if we could, and which ensures that though death must always
be a bugbear, it shall never under any conceivable circumstances be more than a bugbear.
For even though a man is condemned to die in a week's time and is shut up in a prison
from which it is certain that he cannot escape, he will always hope that a reprieve may
come before the week is over. Besides, the prison may catch fire, and he may be
suffocated not with a rope, but with common ordinary smoke; or he may be struck dead
by lightning while exercising in the prison yards. When the morning is come on which
the poor wretch is to be hanged, he may choke at his breakfast, or die from failure of the
heart's action before the drop has fallen; and even though it has fallen, he cannot be quite
certain that he is going to die, for he cannot know this till his death has actually taken
place, and it will be too late then for him to discover that he was going to die at the
appointed hour after all. The Erewhonians, therefore, hold that death, like life, is an affair
of being more frightened than hurt.
They burn their dead, and the ashes are presently scattered over any piece of ground
which the deceased may himself have chosen. No one is permitted to refuse this
hospitality to the dead: people, therefore, generally choose some garden or orchard which
they may have known and been fond of when they were young. The superstitious hold
that those whose ashes are scattered over any land become its jealous guardians from that
time forward; and the living like to think that they shall become identified with this or
that locality where they have once been happy.
They do not put up monuments, nor write epitaphs, for their dead, though in former ages
their practice was much as ours, but they have a custom which comes to much the same
thing, for the instinct of preserving the name alive after the death of the body seems to be