Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Burial Wishes of Samuel Butler

Henry Festing Jones (1851-1928), "Sketch of the Life of Samuel Butler" in Samuel Butler, Selected Essays (London: Jonathan Cape, 1927), pp. 13-58 (at 58):
Epitaphs always fascinated him, and formerly he used to say he should like to be buried at Langar and to have on his tombstone the subject of Handel's Six Great Fugues. He called this 'The Old Man's Fugue,' and said it was like an epitaph composed for himself by one who was very old and tired and sorry for things; and he made young Ernest Pontifex in The Way of All Flesh offer it to Edward Overton as an epitaph for his Aunt Alethea. Butler, however, left off wanting any tombstone. In accordance with his wish his body was cremated, and a week later Alfred and I returned to Woking and buried his ashes under the shrubs in the garden of the crematorium, with nothing to mark the spot.
Cf. Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, chapter XXXVI:
Entering the churchyard and standing in the twilight of a gusty cloudy evening on the spot close beside old Mrs. Pontifex's grave which I had chosen for Alethea's, I thought of the many times that she, who would lie there henceforth, and I, who must surely lie one day in some such another place though when and where I knew not, had romped over this very spot as childish lovers together.

Next morning I followed her to the grave, and in due course set up a plain upright slab to her memory as like as might be to those over the graves of her grandmother and grandfather. I gave the dates and places of her birth and death, but added nothing except that this stone was set up by one who had known and loved her. Knowing how fond she had been of music I had been half inclined at one time to inscribe a few bars of music, if I could find any which seemed suitable to her character, but I knew how much she would have disliked anything singular in connection with her tombstone and did not do it.

Before, however, I had come to this conclusion, I had thought that Ernest might be able to help me to the right thing, and had written to him upon the subject. The following is the answer I received:

"DEAR GODPAPA, I send you the best bit I can think of; it is the subject of the last of Handel's six grand fugues and goes thus:
It would do better for a man, especially for an old man who was very sorry for things, than for a woman, but I cannot think of anything better; if you do not like it for Aunt Alethea I shall keep it for myself. Your affectionate Godson,
                                                                                      ERNEST PONTIFEX."
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.

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