By Hans Christian Andersen (1852)
My father left me the best inheritance; to wit good humour. And who was my father ? Why, that has nothing to do with the humour. He was lively and stout, round and fat ; and his outer and inner man were in direct contradiction to his calling. And pray what was he by profession and calling in civil society ? Ah, if this were to be written down and printed in the very beginning of a book, it is probable that many when they read it would lay the book aside, and say, ‘ It looks so uncomfortable ; I don’t like anything of that sort.’ And yet my father was neither a horse-slaughterer nor an executioner ; on the contrary, his office placed him at the head of thfr-most respectable gentry of the town ; and he held his place by right, for it was his right place. He had to go first, before the bishop even, and before the Princes of the Blood. He always went first for he was the driver of the hearse !
There, now it ’s out ! And I will confess that when people saw my father sitting perched up on the omnibus of death, dressed in his long, wide, black cloak, with his blackbordered three-cornered hat on his head and then his face, exactly as the sun is drawn, round and jocund it was difficult for them to think of the grave and of sorrow. The face said, ‘ It doesn’t matter ; it will be much better than one thinks.’
You see, I have inherited my good humour from him, and also the habit of going often to the churchyard, and that is an agreeable thing to do if it be done with good humour ; and then I take in the Intelligencer, just as he used to do.
I am not quite young. I have neither wife, nor children, nor a library ; but, as aforesaid, I take in the Intelligencer, and that’s my favourite newspaper, as it was also my father’s. It is very useful, and contains everything that a man needs to know such as who preaches in the church and in the new books ; where one can get houses, servants, clothes, and food ; who is selling off, and who is going off himself. And then what a lot of charity, and what a number of innocent, harmless verses are found in it ! Advertisements for husbands and wives, and arrangements for meeting all quite simple and natural. Certainly, one may live merrily and be contentedly buried if one takes in the Intelligencer. And then one has, by the end of his life, such a capital store of paper, that he may use it as a soft bed, unless he prefers to rest upon wood-shavings.
The newspaper and my walk to the churchyard were always my most exciting occupations they were like bathing-places for my good humour.
The newspaper every one can read for himself. But please come with me to the churchyard ; let us wander there where the sun shines and the trees grow green, let us walk among the graves. Each of these is like a closed book, with the back placed uppermost, so that one can only read the title which tells what the book contains, and tells nothing more ; but I know something of them. I heard it from my father, or found it out myself. I have it all down in my record that I wrote out for my own use and pleasure : all that lie here, and a few more, too, are chronicled in it.
Now we are in the churchyard. Here, behind this white railing, where once a rose tree grew it is gone now, but a little evergreen from the next grave stretches out its green fingers to make a show there rests a very unhappy man ; and yet, when he lived, he was in what they call a good position. He had enough to live upon, and something over ; but worldly cares, or, to speak more correctly, his artistic taste, weighed heavily upon him. If in the evening he sat in the theatre to enjoy himself thoroughly, he would be quite put out if the machinist had put too strong a light into one side of the moon, or if the sky-pieces hung down over the scenes when they ought to have hung behind them, or when a palm tree was introduced into a scene representing Amager, or a cactus in a view of the Tyrol, or a beech tree in the far north of Norway. As if that was of any consequence. Is it not quite immaterial ? Who would fidget about such a trifle ? It ’s only make-believe, after all, and every one is expected to be amused. Then sometimes the public applauded too much, and sometimes too little. ‘ They’re like wet wood this evening,’ he would say ; ‘ they won’t kindle at all ! ‘ And then he would look round to see what kind of people they were ; and sometimes he would find them laughing at the wrong time, when they ought not to have laughed, and that vexed him ; and he fretted, and was an unhappy man, and now he is in his grave.
Here rests a very happy man. That is to say, a very grand man. He was of high birth, and that was lucky for him, for otherwise he would never have been anything worth speaking of ; and nature orders all that very wisely, so that it ’s quite charming when we think of it. He used to go about in a coat embroidered back and front, and appeared in the saloons of society just like one of those costly, pearl-embroidered bell-pulls which have always a good thick, serviceable cord behind them to do the work. He likewise had a good stout cord behind him, in the shape of a substitute, who did his duty, and who still continues to do it behind another embroidered bell-pull. Everything is so nicely managed, it ’s enough to put one into a good humour.
Here rests well, it ’s a very mournful reflection here rests a man who spent sixty-seven years considering how he should get a good idea. The object of his life was to say a good thing, and at last he felt convinced in his own mind that he had got one, and was so glad of it that he died of pure joy at having caught an idea at last. Nobody derived any benefit from it, for nobody even heard what the good thing was. Now, I can fancy that this same good thing won’t let him lie quiet in his grave ; for let us suppose that it is a good thing which can only be brought out at breakfast if it is to make an effect, and that he, according to the received opinion concerning ghosts, can only rise and walk at midnight. Why, then the good thing does not suit the time, no one laughs, and the man must carry his good idea down with him again. That is a melancholy grave.
Here rests a remarkably stingy woman. During her lifetime she used to get up at night and mew, so that the neighbours might think she kept a cat she was so remarkably stingy.
Here lies a lady of good family ; in company she always wanted to let her singing be heard, and then she sang ‘ mi manca la voce ‘, that was the only true thing in her life.
Here is a maiden of another kind. When the canary bird of the heart begins to chirp, reason puts her fingers in her ears. The maiden was going to be married, but well, it ’s an everyday story, and we will let the dead rest.
Here sleeps a widow who carried melody in her mouth and gall in her heart. She used to go out for prey in the families round about ; and the prey she hunted was her neighbours’ faults, and she was an indefatigable hunter.
Here ’s a family sepulchre. Every member of this family held so firmly to the opinions of the rest, that if all the world, and the newspapers into the bargain, said of a certain thing it is so and so, and the little boy came home from school and said, ‘ I’ve learned it thus and thus,’ they declared his opinion to be the only true one, because he belonged to the family. And it is an acknowledged fact, that if the yard cock of the family crowed at midnight, they would declare it was morning, though the watchmen and all the clocks in the city were crying out that it was twelve o’clock at night.
The great poet Goethe concludes his ‘ Faust ‘ with the words ‘ may be continued ‘ ; and our wanderings in the churchyard may be continued too. I come here often. If any of my friends, or my non -friends, ‘go on too fast for me, I go out to my favourite spot, and select a mound, and bury him or her there bury that person who is yet alive ; and there those I bury must stay till they come back as new and improved characters. I inscribe their life and their deeds, looked at in my fashion, in my record ; and that ’s what all people ought to do. They ought not to be vexed when any one goes on ridiculously, but bury him directly, and maintain their good humour, and keep to the Intelligencer, which is usually a book written by people under competent guidance.
When the time comes for me to be bound with my history in the boards of the grave, I hope they will put up as my epitaph, ‘ A good humoured one.’ And that ’s my story.