On the Burial of Henry William Herbert
by Ann Neilson
This day commemorates the 160th anniversary of Henry William Herbert’s death. Embittered by life’s unabated plague of sorrow and loss, Herbert succumbed to his demons and took his own life by gunshot to the heart. Although his death may be one of the more shocking aspects of Herbert’s life, he should, rather, be recalled for his prolific career and generous spirit.
In lieu of attempting to write my own memorial of Herbert, I, here, place two accounts of his funeral. Keeping in mind the fact that he’d committed suicide, this posed a great problem within the religious community as there was debate of whether Herbert would (or would not) have a proper funeral, and how it should be carried out if so. You can read more below.
From the Evening Post, May 20, 1858, Pg. 2
BURIAL OF HENRY WM. HERBERT.—The remains of Henry Wm. Herbert, accompanied by a few friends, were conveyed to Newark yesterday afternoon. When the procession arrived in Newark at five o’clock, a large number of persons had assembled at his house.
The coffin—which was of plain mahogany, although Mr. Herbert had expressed his desire to be buried in a coffin of oak—bore a silver plate with the simple inscription,
HENRY WILLIAM HERBERT.
Aged 51 Years.
The words of “England” and “Infelicissimus” was omitted.
The countenance of the deceased was not at all changed; his eyes were gently closed, his expression composed. He wore a white shirt with a black neckcloth and standing collar.
After the body had remained for some moments, in one of the central rooms of the house, and had been viewed by those present, the Rev. John Shackleford, rector of the Episcopal “House of Prayer” at Newark, the same clergyman who married Herbert to his last wife, state that the church to which he belonged forbade him to perform the funeral service in a case like the present one. Mr. Herbert was aware of this fact, and did not expect the service would be read over him. When Mr. Shackleford had concluded, the body was borne through the back door and the gate by which the grounds of Mount Pleasant Cemetery, adjoining “the Cedars,” are entered, and where Herbert parted with his wife, and had intended to die. Mrs. Herbert was not present at the funeral. In accordance with his request, he was buried in Mr. l’Anson’s[?] lot. His black and tan terrier “Vixen,” which he said was his only and last comfort, is in possessiion[sic] of Mr. Kinney, of the Newark Advertiser. His library is claimed by Thomas Picton, as the property of his wife. Much of the furniture has been removed from the house by his creditors.
From the Commercial Advertiser, June 07, 1858, Pg. 2
THE BURIAL OF HENRY WM. HERBERT—TESTIMONIAL to REV. H. B. Sherman, &c.
It will be remembered that the burial of Henry Wm. Herbert, the author, who committed suicide in this city, took place in the cemetery near Newark, N. J., without any religious exercises. The Rev. Mr. Shackleford refused to read the Episcopal burial service, and advised, with the consent and approval of the deceased’s most intimate friends, that the burial should take place in silence. The Rev. Mr. H. B. Sherman, of Belleville, offered to conduct religions exercises on the occasion but his services were declined. Since then, a number of gentlemen in Newark—among them, Messrs. Cortlandt Parker. O. H. Halsted, Jr., J. A. Pennington, J. Southard, F. W. Ricord, ad others equally well known—have subscribed for a handsomely bound copy of Mr. Herbert’s most elaborate work “The Horse of America,” and have presented it to the Rev. Mr. Sherman as a testimonial of their regard and especially of their admiration of his conduct at the funeral of the late Henry W. Herbert, in his willingness to perform some Christian ceremony over the grave of the deceased. In a long letter acknowledging the receipt of this testimonial, published in the Newark Advertiser of Saturday evening, Mr. Sherman says:—
The case was this: What was mortal of Henry William Herbert—the gifted and unfortunate individual who, in an evil hour, under a peculiar pressure of adversities which drove him to a desperation neighboring upon phrenzy, had rushed unbidden into the presence of his Maker—was brought hither for interment. An uncertainty as to the clerical attendance contemplated in the primary arrangement, induced an application for my services, to which, in its alternate reference, I yielded a ready and unscrupulous consent. As a general indication of duty in such behalf, I wanted no further knowledge than the fact that a member of the human family had been gathered to his rest, and that my presence as a Christian minister was invoked to consign the mortal remains of a fellow being to their earthly resting place with appropriate religious services. It was a solemn occasioned and [?] but a religious service could meet it properly.
As to the material issue of my acceding to the request of the living in behalf of the dead, whether saint or sinner in any degree or sense, there could be no vibration of my purpose in that regard. If my action were not interventive nor in trespass upon the official rights of others, the matter of proceeding when occasion opened, was to be taken as the legitimate issue rather than as an adopted line: It was a thing of course. The single and sole item to be entertained as an admissible question, related to the manner of the religious service—what office should be performed.
I needed not the prohibitory conditions of the Rubric under which the Protestant Episcopal Church in which it is my lot to minister has prescribed for restrictive uses a peculiar “Office for the Burial of the Dead,” to stay me from employing that. My sense of the relative fitness of things (to say nothing of my feeling of loyalty to the Church’s dictum) would have sufficed to determine my judgment against the propriety of its use. From several of its leading features, as well as from the prevailing complexion which it wears, I could no otherwise consider than that the peculiar “office” set forth in the Ritual of the Protestant Episcopal Church as a [?] and specific provision, was inappropriate to the present case, manifestly inapplicable and inadmissible, and therefore removed from the account. I entertained neither the design nor the desire to use it.
Nevertheless, (for the question thus unmet, reverted from the fenced field of ecclesiastical regulation, to that broader domain which the conditions of Christian society have mapped, and upon practical recognition of which, the current action of the ministry and the everyday working of the church proceed,) I could no otherwise determine than I already had, that a fitting religious service should be performed. In the free and legitimate exercise of that ministry which I hold in trust for the benefit of others, and under the ample provisions which are supplied by the nature of things, to further it—nay, I may add, under the reigning sense of that great thing. Duty, which presses upon the entire surface of the pastoral mission, constraining him who holds it to seek occasions for its profitable exercise, and especially to embrace them when they come, I was prepared (if the way were open for it, and the conditions of the occasion warranted) to officiate at the funeral of Mr. Herbert in a religious service, which, while it could not affect the dead, might compass its purpose as intended to benefit the living.
Thus far the door of a golden opportunity (in some notable respects such as is offered rarely to the Christian ministry) was plainly opened. The three prime requisites for my appropriating the occasion to a Christian use and purpose, were thus supplied:
(1) The place where the funeral services were to have been performed was within the canonical limits of my parish.
(2) A numerous assemblage of people, with hearts softened and tempered to the reception of a salutary impression from religious services, was in reverent attendance.
(3) At the desire of other friends of the deceased, and the instance of one to whom, in the pathetic language of his last request, he had appealed as to his next and “last friend,” for a final addition to remembered kindnesses in the provision for his decent burial—under these circumstances I had come to “The Cedars,” and stood in the alternate lot assigned me, ready to fulfil the desire of those who bade me, and the prevailing wish of many, if no other of my order should be present to supply the expected services.
At this point my position was relieved; and thenceforth my connection with the matter ceased. What the final issue was, some of you who were present know—for information of the rest, it is briefly told.
Under the guidance of a blind and overmuch devotion to that absorbing and fond conceit of ritual strictness which “strains at gnats and swallows camels;” and which, in its exceeding zeal to “tithe, mint, anise and cummin,” forgets “the weightier matters of the law:” a course of action was adopted and pursued which has awakened only sorrow and a feeling of indignation in this community[sic].
It is painful to recall the harrowing details: and, but for the necessity of completeness to this recital. I would not linger upon their contemplation. The event was thus, as determined by others and another, whose account herein is not to me.
No utterance of prayer to the great God “in whose hand is our life and whose are all our ways,” who “keepeth our soul from death, and our feet from falling,” and who is “nigh unto all them that call upon him,” always and everywhere; no “word in season” with its religious lessons to the living in improvement of the ripe occasion; nor any of the customary notes which mark the burial of the dead, invade the chill precinct of the dishonoring and ominous silence, amid which, under the very rooftree of his abode amongst us, what was mortal of a human being was subjected to the administrative ban of ecclesiastical reprobation, and “buried with the bural[sic] of an ass[see: Jeremiah 22:19].”
There is one matter, which, in conclusion, I desire should be very definitely understood. It is this:—From the responsibility under which the final issue in the case proceeded, I stood distinctly apart; and it is a matter in which neither my name nor presence stand involved. The burden of blame-worthiness (if any be) must rest elsewhere.
I am glad to know, from the indications in your letter, that my position relative to the interment of Mr. Herbert has been in the main understood. I am likewise glad to be assured that (in the absence of authoritative directions) the constitutional provisions which grow out of the nature of things under the shaping combination of circumstances, and the great rubric of human feeling, and the plain canons of common sense, and appreciated and recognized as a sufficient guidance to the Christian minister in the varied exercise of his office.
With a renewal of my grateful acknowledgments to those whom you represent,
I remain, my dear sir,
Yours very truly,
HENRY B. SHERMAN.