- Historic Sites
“this Is A Beautiful World; But I Shall See A Fairer”
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
Some of his more orthodox friends and relatives tried to prepare him for death, with but little satisfaction to themselves. When an old friend of the family asked “how he stood affected toward Christ,” he replied that “a snow-storm was more to him than Christ.” When his aunt asked him if he had made his peace with God, he answered, “I did not know we had ever quarrelled, Aunt.” Just a few days before the end, Parker Pillsbury visited the sickroom: He was very weak and low [says Pillsbury]; he saw but very few more setting suns. He sat pillowed in an easy chair. Behind him stood his patient, dear, devoted mother, with her fan in one hand, and phial of ammonia or cologne in the other, to sustain him in the warm morning. At a table near him, piled with his papers and other articles related to them and to him, sat his sister, arranging them, as I understood, for Ticknor and Fields, who had been to Concord and bought the copyright.
When I entered Thoreau was looking deathly weak and pale. I saw my way but for the fewest words. I said, as I took his hand, “I suppose this is the best you can do now.” He smiled and only nodded, and gasped a faint assent. “The outworks,” I said, “seem almost ready to give way.” Then a smile shone on his pale face, and with an effort he said, “Yes,—but as long as she cracks she holds” (a common saying of boys skating).
Then I spoke only once more to him, and cannot remember my exact words. But I think my question was substantially this: “You seem so near the brink of the dark river, that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.” Then he answered, “One world at a time.”
On the fourth of May, Alcott and Channing came to call. Alcott came away certain, as he says, that Thoreau had “not many days of his mortality to give us.” On the fifth they returned again and found that he was “very weak but suffered nothing and talked in his old pleasant way, saying ‘it took Nature a long time to do her work but he was most out of the world.’ ” As they left, Alcott stooped over and kissed him. “It was affecting,” says Channing, “to see this venerable man kissing his brow, when the damps and sweat of death lay upon it, even if Henry knew it not. It seemed to me an extreme unction, in which a friend was the best priest.”
That evening Thoreau received a last letter from Daniel Ricketson which his sister read to him. Ironically it said: “I hope this will find you mending , and as I hear nothing to the contrary, I trust that it may be so that you are.” A “Mr. B——” had volunteered to sit up the night with him, but Henry wanted his old friend Edmund Hosmer, and he was sent for. In the morning (May 6) when Hosmer was ready to leave, Thoreau called his sister and asked her to give him a copy of one of his books.
At seven o’clock he became restless and asked to be moved. Judge Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar arrived with a bouquet of hyacinths from his garden. Thoreau smelled them and said he liked them. His selfpossession did not forsake him. A little after eight he asked to be raised up. The last few weeks of his life he had been working over his Maine Woods papers and his thoughts continued on his writing to the end. The last sentence he spoke contained but two distinct words: “Moose” and “Indian.” As his mother, his sister, and his Aunt Louisa watched, his breathing grew fainter and fainter, and without the slightest struggle he died at nine o’clock. Sophia said, “I feel as if something very beautiful had happened,—not death.”
Plans were immediately started for the funeral. Emerson insisted that it be held in the First Parish Church (Unitarian), though many of his friends protested that Thoreau would have felt such a service inappropriate after his “signingoff” from the church as a young man. And Mrs. Hawthorne complained, “I ought to be at his funeral for the sake of shewing my deep respect and value for him to others, though I could better mourn him at home.”
Alcott planned the service, patterning the arrangements on those Thoreau himself had made for the John Brown memorial service in Concord three years before. When Alcott called at the home to talk over the plans, Sophia showed him Thoreau’s face. He thought Thoreau looked as he had last seen him, but of a tinge of paler hue. Emerson, meanwhile, prepared the eulogy and wrote to various friends, asking them to attend the funeral and inviting them to a very early dinner at his home.
The service was held at three on the afternoon of May 9. Alcott, who was Concord’s school superintendent, left word with his teachers to dismiss all the children, and many of them thus attended the funeral. The church was filled. Hawthorne and his family were there, as were the faithful Blake and Brown from Worcester, James T. Fields and his wife, and Bronson Alcott and his daughters Anna and Louisa May, among others. Daniel Ricketson, too appalled with grief, did not attend.
The casket, in the church vestibule, was covered with wildflowers. Inside it was a wreath of andromeda—his favorite flower. As the church bell tolled Thoreau’s forty-four years, the mourners walked in procession to the church. The service opened with selections from the Bible read by the Reverend Grindall Reynolds, minister of the church. A hymn written by Channing and printed for the occasion was sung “plaintively” by the choir.