Emily Dickinson: Morbid Poet or Canny Pre-Planner?

It's inspiring to note that America's most death-preoccupied poet (known for writing "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,""Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me;" and "I was always attached to mud") died in her own sunny bedroom, was then placed in a white casket on a pine bier in the parlor, honored with a 130-line obituary in the local newspaper, and was lovingly buried with two heliotropes in her hands at a gorgeous graveside service that involved other May-blooming flowers she had studiously reared (when in better health) in her own garden. Who gets an end-of-life roll-out like that any more? Mostly only those who think a lot about death in advance.

Emily Dickinson mural in Amherst, Massachusetts
Emily Dickinson mural in Amherst, Massachusetts

She'd be pleased with us, sitting here, talking about her funeral. "We do not think enough of the Dead as exhilarants," she wrote. What a soul, what an intellect. She shocks and enlightens us today with her death-inspired insights. For example, she said any death, all death, reliably comes as a "stupendous" surprise (even when that death is long-awaited and anticipated). She also wrote, "All other Surprise is at last monotonous, but the death of the Loved is all moments--now."

For her funeral May 19th, 1886, Dickinson's pall bearers walked her casket from the parlor to the cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts, as her grave lay just beyond the fence line of the elegant home where she lived all her life. There, her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson read Emily Bronte's poem "No Coward Soul is Mine," a piece which could be interpreted as slightly more religious than Dickinson was in her final years, but you can decide for yourself when you read it. Start thinking about what poems you'd like recited when you too are dead, when "subterfuge is done," and when the temporary and the eternal "Apart--intrinsic--stand."

No Coward Soul Is Mine

By Emily Bronte

No coward soul is mine, No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere: I see Heaven's glories shine, And faith shines equal, arming me from Fear.

O God within my breast, Almighty, ever-present Deity! Life - that in me hast rest, As I - Undying Life- have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds That move men's hearts, unutterably vain; Worthless as withered weeds Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one Holding so fast by Thine infinity; So surely anchored on The steadfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love Thy Spirit animates eternal years, Pervades and broods above, Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though Earth and moon were gone, And suns and universes ceased to be, And Thou wert left alone, Every Existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death, Nor atom that his might could render void: Thou - Thou art Being and Breath, And what Thou art may never be destroyed.