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Bill Thayer

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Doubling the Cape

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Life in a Man-of‑War

a Fore‑top-man

published by
Houghton Mifflin Company
Boston and New York

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Revels on San Lorenzo
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p76  Burial at Sea

"He shall not sink upon his watery bier unwept."

The consignment of a frail remnant of clay to the silent tomb, is at all times, and in all situations, a scene of dread solemnity. I have seen the costly and idle pageant, glittering with ostentatious mockery, as the mortal remains of what once was dignity were conveyed to the rich and sculptured mausoleum: I have seen the simple village train surround the rude bier, containing perhaps the companion of their childhood, and pour forth the lamentations of heartfelt sorrow ere they placed it in its narrow cell: I have heard the solemn and death-like sound of the muffled drum as it preceded the stiffened corpse of some gallant son of Mars, whose sorrow­ful comrades were about to pay him the last tribute of respect; all these have I seen, and witnessing which, has filled my mind with feelings at once gloomy and sorrow­ful; but 'tis the burial at sea, when the departed shipmate or kind loving friend, enshrouded in the hammock in which he was wont to sleep, his cares away, is launched into the boundless deep; no green turf to cover his head — no stone to mark his sepulchre; the piping northeast wind his funeral dirge, the sea‑birds fitful scream his only requiem; 'tis at this time the most hardened and depraved of God's creatures, as he sees the dark blue waters close over the remains of him, who, but a few short days before was joining in the gambols of the ship, with a spirit as buoyant as air; it is at a time like this, he becomes doubly sensible of death and of an hereafter.

As the sojourner on shore places the remains of the partner of his bosom or the child of his affections beneath the silent earth, he has the gratification, though but a slight one, of viewing the dreary prison that contains them; and will take a melancholy pleasure in contemplating the green mound beneath which his kindred or acquaintance are mouldering into dust — but the mariner who resigns his spirit on the wide and boundless sea — far, far estranged  p77 from home and country — no fond, doating mother, or loving, affectionate sister to close his sunken eyes, or hear the last dying request vibrate upon his quivering lips; — and when his kind-hearted shipmates, with the briny tear trickling down their bronzed and manly cheeks, who perhaps have endeavoured to smooth his pillow, towards the conclusion of his mortal race, have consigned him to the yawning gulf of the mighty ocean — one plunge and a slight ripple is all that remains to tell the resting-place of the hapless wanderer. I have seen several shipmates consigned to a watery tomb, but will merely advert to one burial that took place during our cruise, it being the most solemn and imposing that has come under my observation.

Shortly after we left Rio, Mr. P–––––, our third lieutenant, a brave, urbane, and meritorious officer, became seriously unwell; the fatal disease (an abscess of the left lung) in a short time made the most dreadful ravages on him, and no one to look upon the pale, cadaverous, emaciated form that occupied the cot under the half-deck, could for a moment believe it was the same individual who, but a few short weeks before, with roseate countenance, portly figure, and commanding form, paced the deck with stately pride, "giving his orders with a Stentor's voice" — but such is the fell power of sickness. — What inroads will it not make on the strongest constitutions; how will it not unstring the most athletic and sinewy frame? After we doubled the cape he became gradually worse and worse, he sensibly felt that his end was approaching, and resigned himself accordingly, and though every thing that unremitting attendance, medical skill, and the soothing attention of his brother officers could do, in their anxiety to alleviate his sufferings, he expired on the evening of the twenty-eighth of October.

The twenty-ninth was a delightful day; we were moving along with studding-sails set, and our old frigate from the velocity with which she skimmed over the sparkling billows, appeared as if endeavouring to make up for the detention occasioned by the adverse winds and tempestuous weather when off the cape. As the bell's sharp clang proclaimed it noon, sail was shortened, and our ship  p78 hove to with the main-topsail to the mast, and the thrilling and doleful cry of "All hands bury the dead," issued from the mouths of the boatswain and his mates. The entire ship's company, neatly and uniformly dressed in white frocks, blue jackets and trowsers, now repaired to the spar-deck, and formed themselves, with order and silence, abaft the mainmast. A death-like stillness prevailed — not a whisper was heard throughout the ship — and now the heavenly and soul-thrilling air of the Dead March in Saul pealed forth from the several instruments of our musicians, and as the sweet sounds were wafted away upon the inspiring breeze, every bosom was filled with awe and solemnity. The corpse was now borne on deck by six captains of guns belonging to the division of which the deceased had the command, and as they laid their melancholy burden upon the platform that was in readiness to receive it, and from which it was to be launched into the boundless deep. The tear of sorrow and affection could be observed dimming the eye of many a gallant officer standing by, as he perceived the remains of him, who perhaps had braved with him the dangers of the perilous ocean, in youth and manhood about to be engulfed in his watery tomb.

Look upon that coffin, covered with the stars of the Union, under the flutter of which he who now lays stiffened by the unsparing hand of Death, braved the icy terrors of the poles or the scorching influence of the tropics. And what a subject for contemplation. Where now is that fond, doating wife, who at his departure, as she planted the kiss of affection on his glowing lips, looked forward with flattering hopes for his safe and speedy return? Where is that fair-haired, blooming boy, his parents only solace, who as he lisps forth the name of father, enquires in thoughtless gaiety when he will clasp him to his fond bosom again? But alas! for both, the cruel and unerring shaft of Death, which at once levels the ploughman and the peer — the king and the beggar — has fearfully frustrated their joyous anticipations.

The burial service was now read in an audible and solemn voice by our first lieutenant, and the gloomy and desponding countenances of the assembled crowd plainly told that their feelings were  p79 in unison with the melancholy occasion that had drawn them together. At the doleful words, "we commit his body to the deep," the end of the platform was raised — a plunge was heard in the water — the entire marine guard, drawn up in the lee‑gangway, discharged three volleys of musketry — and in another moment not a vestige remained to point the spot where the son of Ocean had sunk to his unfathomable resting-place.

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Page updated: 5 Oct 21