The Custom of Burial With the Head Towards the East

IN Shakespeare’s Cymbeline there occurs a passage suggesting a curious question, to which it has not been easy to find an answer. It is that where Guiderius and Arviragus are preparing to bury Imogen, who, in the dress of a youth, lies apparently dead. Guiderius says, —

“ Nay, Cadwal, we must lay his head to the east ;
My father hath a reason for ’t.”

What was that reason ? In the flood of annotation which has been poured over the plays of the greatest of poets, there has been no reply to this rather Interesting inquiry. We have quite enough of a guidance that perplexes or misleads, of illustrations that do but darken, and emendations of what was quite straight till private hands intermeddled to crook it. There is plenty of vapid and false criticism, from one of the most learned of English bishops ; from one of the most ponderous of English moralists; from one of the most shining names in classic English verse. But no critic or commentator that we know of, from “piddling Tibbald ” to Coleridge the transcendental, with his cloudy pomp of professional words and fanciful abstractions, has had a syllable to bestow upon this point. Knight’s Pictorial has no representation of it. Our own ingenious Mr. Hudson offers no lesson or conjecture about it. Mr. Richard Grant White — and he alone, so far as we know, has had his attention called to this subject — says : “ What was Belarius’s reason for this disposition of the body in the ground, I have been unable to discover.” If we turn to the German version of the play by Schlegel and Tieck, we find that the passage is not only not explained, but entirely mistranslated. It is made to say,

“ Nay, Cadwal, we must lay his face to the east " ;
“ Nach Osten, Cadwal, muss sein Antlitz liegen ” ;

which is certainly wide of the original by just half the circumference of the earth ; for if the face is to look eastward, the head must, of course,’ be reclined westward. The two brothers were about to bury the brutish Cloten, whom Guiderius had just slain, at the same time with the beautiful boy whom they so tenderly lamented. And doubtless he would have had them both laid out in the same direction; — for, as he said, and the reason that his father had given, whatever it was, would still apply here. But again, what was that reason ? If the command had been to lay the head to the opposite quarter of the sky, we can readily suppose what the motive was for such a requisition. The face would then be turned towards the east, the sunrise, and the doctrine of the resurrection might thus seem to be symbolized. But, on the contrary, the countenance of the dead is made to front that portion of the heavens where the sun does nothing but sink towards its setting, and set.

“ Thersites’ body is as good as Ajax,
When neither is alive " ;

And yet that cheerful and encouraging idea is not the one that is most frequently presented in the religious usages of the ancient world. Quite the reverse. The description that we here have in Shakespeare corresponds with the funeral customs that generally obtained before the Christian era. We have it from Ælian and Plutarch, that such was the method in ancient Greece, and especially among the people of Athens. We hear the voice of the Delphic Apollo : —

“Go, first propitiate the country’s chiefs,
Who, when interred, faced the declining sun.”

There is some discrepance, indeed, among the Greek writers on this subject. But there can be little doubt that the fact is as we have stated. Sir Thomas Browne, in his Hydriotaphia, asserts — and seems to have good authority for the assertion—that the Phœnicians, children of the East as they were, turned the dead face towards the west.

Under the influence of Christianity this order was reversed, and doubtless for the reason that has been already assigned. The ancient Christian writers are agreed in their testimony, so far as they give any, that, in burial, the countenance was turned towards the sky, in sign of a heavenly origin; and towards the east, in sign of an immortal hope. Robert Herrick, the Catullus of English poetry, expresses this in the Hesperides: —

“Ah, Bianca! now I see
It is noon and past with me.
In a while it will strike one ;
Then, Bianca, I am gone.
Some effusions let me have
Offered on my holy grave ;
Then, Bianca, let me rest
With my face towards the east.”

But, as if here also there must be some confusion, we read in one of the old dramatists the following lines : —

“ I turn thy head unto the east,
And thy feet unto the west;
Thy left arm to the south put forth.
And the right unto the north.”

Just the contrary of what was quoted before. And it is worth observing that the figure thus described is cruciform. The hands extended at right angles with the body, instead of lying at the side, or being folded upon the bosom, could never have been a prevailing mode of interment, and is evidently meant to be merely an image of the great crucifixion. And all this corresponds perfectly with the aspect of the vast church structures which were going up in various parts of Europe in the Middle Ages, taking centuries to build, with many thousands of men sometimes working at once upon a single building. A hundred thousand workmen, Michelet assures us, were employed at the same time upon the sculptured pile at Strasburg; and there is the marvel at Cologne not finished yet. The cathedrals were in the shape of a cross, with their head, the most sacred part, where was the chapel of the Madonna, always lying towards the east. This latter fact is remarkable, and may throw some light on the subject we have now in view. We naturally conclude that this position was adopted on account of the superior sanctity of that quarter of heaven from which Christ came, and the light of his Gospel first dawned. The lines just quoted clearly transfer this position and idea from the church-building to the human body as it is laid in the grave. There is a passage in Michelet’s History of France that sets forth the same thought, and expands it with so much fancy and rhetorical fervor that it is worth reciting, if it were only as a sample of his peculiar style, poetic and idealistic, of writing history. “ The cathedral,” he says, “ is a petrified mystery, a suffering in stone ; or, rather, it is the Sufferer himself. The whole edifice, in the austerity of its architectural geometry, is a human bodyThe nave, stretching out its two arms, is man on the cross ; the crypt, the church under ground, is man in the tomb ; the tower, the spire, — it is still he, but up, and mounting to heaven. In that choir, bent from the line of the nave,”— it should be remarked that only in a very few instances is it found so bent, — “ yon see his head bowed in agony ; you recognize his blood in the burning purple of the windows. Let us touch these stones with care ; let us tread softly upon these pavements. Everything there bleeds and suffers yet. A great mystery is passing before us.” This may sound very fanciful. But even the cautious Dean Milman avers, in his History of Latin Christianity, that the Gothic cathedral was “ typical in every part, from the spire to the crypt.”

Under impressions like these, it would not have been singular if a correspondent usage had sprung up (though there is perhaps no positive evidence of it) of laying the heads of the deceased towards the rising sun, as is indicated by the old dramatist quoted. Indeed, we should wonder if it had been otherwise ; and there is fair ground of conjecture that such may have actually been the case in some instances ; in some instances, we say, for it does not seem likely that the original tradition of all Christendom should ever have been extensively departed from, and its primitive usage been thus inverted.

But now, again,—as if the subject could never be wholly free from contrary facts and discordant testimony, — the direction in which the apse of the church pointed was by no means universally the same. In France and in Germany it pointed, indeed, pretty uniformly to the east, — in the great Gothic structures, perhaps, invariably so. In the temple of St. Sophia at Constantinople, erected centuries before the Northern builders arose, it was so. In London, the modern cathedral of St. Paul’s, as well as the ancient Abbey, are both calculated on the same principle of orientation. But in Italy the case is strikingly otherwise. The greatest churches of Rome, with St. Peter’s at their head, open their vast portals to the populace on their eastern side, instead of presenting to that sacred quarter the close mysteries of their chancel and high altar and uppermost recess.

It is now time to gather up into some distinct statements the result of what has been suggested, and see if we can get at what was in the mind of Shakespeare when he made Guiderius say, “ My father hath a reason for ’t.” And first, it has been the habit of all religions to regard some one particular point of the horizon as holy above all the rest, to which all observances had reference. The stationary Hindoos sought with their eyes the fabulous mountain of the gods, towards the cool north, through the far mists that would never allow them the vision of it. The roving Goths, in their worship of Odin, stormed towards the South alter that city of Asgard where they were to find fulness of joy. The Mussulmans, wherever they spread their carpets for devotion, turn towards Mecca, the city of the prophet. The Hebrews worshipped towards the holy temple, and, when that was thrown down, towards the hill where it had stood. So early as when that temple was dedicated, King Solomon spoke of those who, in the after ages, should pray towards that place ; and the Prophet Daniel, in his exile, when he opened his windows in the direction of Jerusalem as he prayed, was imitated by whole generations of his people, in their longer exile and wider dispersion over every part of the earth. Now tin’s same Jerusalem was the point toward which turned Christian worship in the early centuries of the Church. Jerusalem invited Christian arms for its deliverance a part of the time, and attracted Christian hearts to it by their most sacred sympathies always. It was not like Mount Merû in the North, where the gods sat in council; nor like the city Asgard in the South, where the gods sat at their feasts ; but, far away in the East, it was the place of the Master’s grief and sepulchre.

We are tempted here to repeat an anecdote relating to the superstitions of some, at least, of the African slaves of our Southern States. It is taken from a letter addressed by Dr. Robert W. Gibbes to Governor Alston of South Carolina, a few years ago. The Doctor writes: “Negroes are generally fatalists, and believe that every one has his time appointed to die ; and if it be come, they expect to die ; and if not, they will get well without medicine. Frequently I have found the patient’s bed turned from its position of the day before, in order that he might die with his face towards the rising sun ; and often have I had it restored, informing them that their ‘ time had not come to go home,’ as they call it.” It is an affecting story, and not wholly out of place here. Doubtless the poor fellows, from a similar feeling, would like to have their eyes, after their sight was gone, turned still in the same direction. The east and their native land, the home of their memory and the home of their hope, would naturally run together in the gleams and shadows of that parting hour.

A further reflection is this. As the eastern quarter of the heavens, both from history and from sentiment, as the point whence religions sprang and the point where the day breaks, would naturally be the religious quarter to the Western nations, whether the head or the face of a corpse was studiously deposited in the direction of the Orient would be equally significant in a religious view. There would be the same pious intent; though it would partake, in the one case, more of an historical, and in the other, more of an allegorical character. If the head were to the east, it would lie nearest to the scene of miraculous events, and to ground considered thrice holy. If the face were to the east, it would, beside such local references, or even without them, prefigure the great hope of human souls.

To return to the line and a half of Shakespeare which have given occasion to this wide ramble of a disquisition. The action of the play is in Britain, just previous to the Christian era. Britain was then the chief seat of the Druidical institutions. Its religious ceremonies were those of the Druids. Now it would be in the highest degree probable, even before making any researches into the subject, that this religion of sacerdotalism and caste, so unlike anything of European birth, did not originate in that extreme corner of the old Western world. It would be too violent a conjecture that such could be the case. The elder Pliny must have told but a small part of the story in saying that this religion was brought into Britain from Gaul; and Julius Cæsar must have been still further from the fact in saying that it was brought into Gaul from Britain. If you go on into Germany, where it contrived to gain a footing, you will still be a great way off from its primitive domain. Eastward, — still eastward. Its doctrines, its ceremonies, its symbols, and the names of its divinities, closely resembling the Sanscrit, afford large testimony that India was its native soil. Even so early a writer as Aristotle, and Diogenes Laertius after him, rank the Druidic priesthood with the priesthoods of the remotest East ; and modern scholarship has followed out that idea with ample confirmations. A writer in the second volume of the Asiatic Researches has the boldness to say that “Stonehenge is evidently one of the temples of Buddha ” ; and again, “that the Druids of Britain were Brahmins is beyond the least shadow of a doubt.” This may be spoken extravagantly, but the general idea that Druidism may be traced back to the Hindoos may be regarded as well sustained. In view of this fact, and especially when we consider how much addicted this worship was to the observation of heavenly phenomena and the cardinal points of the sky, nothing is more natural than that it should choose to lay the buried body with the head towards the sacred land of the East. The motive would be precisely parallel with that which determined the position of the cruciform church of the Middle Ages.

When, therefore, old Belarius, in the play, prescribes that mode of interment, and " hath a reason for ’t,” we may be willing to travel to the East Indies to discover what that reason was. And there is fair ground for thinking that there we find it. We are confirmed in this conclusion by a certain air of mystery that seems to hang over the passage which is so singularly and abruptly introduced into the dialogue. And since the burial usage in Christian countries was exactly the reverse of the instruction here given, may we not entertain the thought that the universal mind of Shakespeare meant to mark that difference, and to show, by one touch of his art, that the persons of his drama lived at a time when a foreign faitli ruled in his native island, and there was as yet no Christendom ?