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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). The Complete Works. 1904.
Vol. I. Nature, Addresses and Lectures

XXI. Consecration of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

To the Inhabitants of Concord at the Consecration of Sleepy Hollow
September 29, 1855

  • “NO abbey’s gloom, nor dark cathedral stoops,
  • No winding torches paint the midnight air;
  • Here the green pines delight, the aspen droops
  • Along the modest pathways, and those fair
  • Pale asters of the season spread their plumes
  • Around this field, fit garden for our tombs.
  • And shalt thou pause to hear some funeral-bell
  • Slow stealing o’er the heart in this calm place,
  • Not with a throb of pain, a feverish knell,
  • But in its kind and supplicating grace,
  • It says, Go, pilgrim, on thy march, be more
  • Friend to the friendless than thou wast before;
  • Learn from the loved one’s rest serenity;
  • To-morrow that soft bell for thee shall sound,
  • And thou repose beneath the whispering tree,
  • One tribute more to this submissive ground;—
  • Prison thy soul from malice, bar out pride,
  • Nor these pale flowers nor this still field deride:
  • Rather to those ascents of being turn
  • Where a ne’er-setting illumes the year
  • Eternal, and the incessant watch-fires burn
  • Of unspent holiness and goodness clear,—
  • Forget man’s littleness, deserve the best,
  • God’s mercy in thy thought and life confest.”

  • CITIZENS AND FRIENDS: The committee to whom was confided the charge of carrying out the wishes of the town in opening the cemetery, having proceeded so far as to enclose the ground, and cut the necessary roads, and having laid off as many lots as are likely to be wanted at present, have thought it fit to call the inhabitants together, to show you the ground, now that the new avenues make its advantages appear; and to put it at your disposition.

    They have thought that the taking possession of this field ought to be marked by a public meeting and religious rites: and they have requested me to say a few words which the serious and tender occasion inspires.

    And this concourse of friendly company assures me that they have rightly interpreted your wishes. [Here followed, in the address, about three pages of matter which Mr. Emerson used later in his essay on Immortality, which may be found in the volume Letters and Social Aims, beginning on page 324, “The credence of men,” etc., and ending on pages 326–27 with the sentence, “Meantime the true disciples saw, through the letters, the doctrine of eternity which dissolved the poor corpse and nature also, and gave grandeur to the passing hour.”]

    In these times we see the defects of our old theology; its inferiority to our habit of thoughts. Men go up and down; Science is popularized; the irresistible democracy—shall I call it?—of chemistry, of vegetation, which recomposes for new life every decomposing particle,—the race never dying, the individual never spared,—have impressed on the mind of the age the futility of these old arts of preserving. We give our earth to earth. We will not jealously guard a few atoms under immense marbles, selfishly and impossibly sequestering it from the vast circulations of Nature but, at the same time, fully admitting the divine hope and love which belong to our nature, wishing to make one spot tender to our children, who shall come hither in the next century to read the dates of these lives.

    Our people accepting this lesson from science, yet touched by the tenderness which Christianity breathes, have found a mean in the consecration of gardens. A simultaneous movement has, in a hundred cities and towns in this country, selected some convenient piece of undulating ground with pleasant woods and waters; every family chooses its own clump of trees; and we lay the corpse in these leafy colonnades.

    A grove of trees,—what benefit or ornament is so fair and great? they make the landscape; they keep the earth habitable; their roots run down, like cattle, to the water-courses; their heads expand to feed the atmosphere. The life of a tree is a hundred and a thousand years; its decays ornamental; its repairs self-made: they grow when we sleep, they grew when we were unborn. Man is a moth among these longevities. He plants for the next millennium. Shadows haunt them; all that ever lived about them cling to them. You can almost see behind these pines the Indian with bow and arrow lurking yet exploring the traces of the old trail.

    Modern taste has shown that there is no ornament, no architecture alone, so sumptuous as well disposed woods and waters, where art has been employed only to remove superfluities, and bring out the natural advantages. In cultivated grounds one sees the picturesque and opulent effect of the familiar shrubs, barberry, lilac, privet and thorns, when they are disposed in masses, and in large spaces. What work of man will compare with the plantation of a park? It dignifies life. It is a seat for friendship, counsel, taste and religion. I do not wonder that they are the chosen badge and point of pride of European nobility. But how much more are they needed by us, anxious, overdriven Americans, to stanch and appease which fury of temperament which our climate bestows!

    This tract fortunately lies adjoining to the Agricultural Society’s ground, to the New Burial Ground, to the Court House and the Town House, making together a large block of public ground, permanent property of the town and county,—all the ornaments of either adding so much value to all.

    I suppose all of us will readily admit the value of parks and cultivated grounds to the pleasure and education of the people, but I have heard it said here that we would gladly spend for a park for the living, but not for a cemetery; a garden for the living, a home of thought and friendship. Certainly the living need it more than the dead; indeed, to speak precisely, it is given to the dead for the reaction of benefit on the living. But it the direct regard to the living be thought expedient, that is also in your power. This ground is happily so divided by Nature as to admit of this relation between the Past and the Present. In the valley where we stand will be the Monuments. On the other side of the ridge, towards the town, a portion of the land is in full view of the cheer of the village and is out of sight of the Monuments; it admits of being reserved for secular purposes; for games,—not such as the Greeks honored the dead with, but for games of education; the distribution of school prizes; the meeting of teachers; patriotic eloquence, the utterance of the principles of national liberty to private, social, literary or religious fraternities. Here we may establish that most agreeable of all museums, and agreeable to the temper of our times,—an Arboretum,—wherein may be planted, by the taste of every citizen, one tree, with its name recorded in a book; every tree that is native to Massachusetts, or will grow in it; so that every child may be shown growing, side by side, the eleven oaks of Massachusetts; and the twenty willows; the beech, which we have allowed to die out of the eastern counties; and here the vast firs of California and Oregon.

    This spot for twenty years has borne the name of Sleepy Hollow. Its seclusion from the village in its immediate neighborhood had made it to all the inhabitants an easy retreat on a Sabbath day, or a summer twilight, and it was inevitably chosen by them when the design of a new cemetery was broached, if it did not suggest the design, as the fit place for their final repose. In all the multitudes of woodlands and hillsides, which within a few years have been laid out with a similar design, I have not known one so fitly named. Sleepy Hollow. In this quiet valley, as in the palm of Nature’s hand, we shall sleep well when we have finished our day. What is the Earth itself but a surface scooped into nooks and caves of slumber—according to the Eastern fable, a bridge full of holes, into one or other of which all the passengers sink to silence? Nay, when I think of the mystery of life, its round of illusions, our ignorance of its beginning or its end, the speed of the changes of that glittering dream we call existence,—I think sometimes that the vault of the sky arching there upward, under which our busy being is whirled, is only a Sleepy Hollow, with path of Suns, instead of foot-paths; and Milky Ways, for truck-roads.

    The ground has the peaceful character that belongs to this town;—no lofty crags, no glittering cataracts;—but I hold that every part of Nature is handsome when not deformed by bad Art. Bleak sea-rocks and sea-downs and blasted heaths have their own beauty; and though we make much ado in our praises of Italy or Andes, Nature makes not so much difference. The morning, the moonlight, the spring day, are magical painters, and can glorify a meadow or a rock.

    But we must look forward also, and make ourselves a thousand years old; and when these acorns, that are falling at our feet, are oaks overshadowing our children in a remote century, this mute green bank will be full of history: the good, the wise and great will have left their names and virtues on the trees; heroes, poets, beauties, sanctities, benefactors, will have made the air timeable and articulate.

    And hither shall repair, to this modest spot of God’s earth, every sweet and friendly influence; the beautiful night and beautiful day will come in turn to sit upon the grass. Our use will not displace the old tenants. The well-beloved birds will not sing one song the less, the high-holding woodpecker, the meadow-lark, the oriole, robin, purple finch, bluebird, thrush and red-eyed warbler, the heron, the bittern will find out the hospitality and protection from the gun of this asylum, and will seek the waters of the meadow; and in the grass, and by the pond, the locust, the cricket and the hyla, shall shrilly play.

    We shall bring hither the body of the dead, but how shall we catch the escaped soul? Here will burn for us, as the oath of God, the sublime belief. I have heard that death takes us away from ill things, not from good. I have heard that when we pronounce the name of man, we pronounce the belief of immortality. All great natures delight in stability; all great men find eternity affirmed in the promise of their faculties. Why is the fable of the Wandering Jew agreeable to men, but because they want more time and land to execute their thoughts in? Life is not long enough for art, nor long enough for friendship. The evidence from intellect is as valid as the evidence from love. The being that can share a thought and feeling so sublime as confidence in truth is no mushroom. Our dissatisfaction with any other solution is the blazing evidence of immortality.