Opposition to the Burial of Euclid (1859)

A few weeks ago the Sophomore class, contrary to all precedent, instead of the usual resolution to support that ‘time-honored’ institution of Yale, the glorious old Burial of Euclid, deliberately voted, as a class, to do away with it! What is more surprising still, the vote stood forty-seven against, to twenty-seven only in favor of the Burial. Can the feelings of any true-hearted Yalensian, in view of this state of things, be other than those of amazement and sorrow? Can we not indignantly ask, ‘What right have these ephemeral Sophomores to break that chain, whose first link was forged far back in the ages, and which, extending along the course of time, brings down to us the precious memories of the past? Does not everybody know that this ‘time-honored’ institution has existed, while orbs on orbs have wheeled round the circumambient circles of fathomless space, and cycles on epicycles have rotated, with a rotatory motion, around the rota of indefinite duration; in short from ‘time-immemorial?’ But what reason do they give for their impious action. Forsooth, they say, profanity, obscenity, drunkenness, and a few other venial crimes are encouraged by it! What flimsy excuses! flimsy, even considered by themselves; but, when compared with the argument that this institution is ‘time-honored,’ they sink into utter insignificance and contempt. What if these things be true, shall these Sophomores pretend to condemn what has been sanctioned from ‘time immemorial’? Do we not all know that what time honors and sanctions, must be right? We will not insult the intelligence of Yale College by attempting to prove such a self-evident proposition. Besides, it is not our fault if others do wrong. We must stand by the constitution, and allow to each one the inalienable right of pursuit of happiness.

But these fanatical Sophomores, these reckless agitators, these misers, who would not pay two dollars apiece to gratify the depraved tastes of twenty-seven noble classmates, who wanted merely to have a jolly good spree; these lawless disturbers of the peculiar institution of P.B.s, have found to their chagrin that ‘truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.’ Already have they fallen into the pit they dug for others. We stated that twenty-seven stood true to the interests of humanity. Noble twenty-seven! Noble, not so much because they attempted to stem the tide of Abolitionism that was threatening to sweep away the ancient landmarks of college society, but because, after mature deliberation, they staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred (0 honor(?), for the sake of the public weal. Small in numbers, smaller in intellect, only great in that strange spell—the pocket, obscure and unrespected, unknown to fame, unhonored and unsung, these noble twenty-seven, for once in their lives, determined to be men, ‘men, who know their rights, and, knowing, dare maintain.’ No longer will they allow their rights to be trampled upon. They dissolve the Union; they excommunicate the rest of the class; they reestablish their cherished institution; they rivet on to the chain, that has come down from ‘time immemorial,’ a bastard link and stamp it with the name of ’62! Yalensians, rejoice! we can still enjoy the inheritance of our fathers in peace. Our enemies, bribed by those ever grasping, never yielding opposers of our innocent pastimes, the faculty, have been signally defeated. We can yet, from year to year, bury old Euclid, take a swig over his coffin, and drink to his departed shades; still can we, imp, devil, hag, harlequin and all, dance around his burning corpse, and play the grab game for some remains of our departing friend!

But wait a minute. It is to be feared, that some disgrace will be brought upon the temperance cause. Let us turn to facts, and see if we can get sober, in tracing the history of this time-honored institution. It is certain that previous to the year 1840 nothing of the kind was ever heard or dreamt of; ‘time immemorial’ having commenced a few years later. The class of 1846 had a Burial of Euclid, which somewhat resembled what we now call by the same name. It was probably the first that bore any resemblance whatever to the institution of our day; from which fact we see that there is many a Freshman, with the gentle down upon his tender lip betokening manhood in the dim distance, whose head, though not yet silvered with whitened locks nor bespangled with gray, time has, nevertheless, honored more than it has the glorious old Burial of Euclid, descended from ‘time immemorial.’ For one or two years previous to 1843, Euclid was burned in the morning. A few Sophomores carrying canes, marched, with a fated copy of Euclid, carried in an urn, at their head, to some convenient spot, where they ‘saw through it,’ ‘went over it carefully’ and finally burned it. They then placed the urn with its ashes, over the door of the Lyceum, where it staid until removed by some minion of the faculty. This was undoubtedly the origin of the Burial of Euclid. As far as we can learn, these simple exercises were first enacted by the class of ’44. Its change to what it is now, has been gradual. In the classes of ’48, ’49 and ’50, it began to assume some of its most revolting features, and was then, for the first time, forbidden by the faculty. Many were expelled for participation in and attendance on the exercises. Its supporters hired townies, rowdies, and other kindred spirits, to take the’ responsible positions, and thus managed to evade detection. It was at this time, that its profanity, its mockery of everything solemn, was extreme. But latterly obscenity seems to be its most revolting feature; and later still, drunkenness and rowdyism have been conspicuous.

It has been usual, in all descriptions of the Burial of Euclid, to place it in a very favorable light, to pass over all its faults, and dwell merely on its pomp and wild excitement. It is natural that it should be so. There undoubtedly has been something of enchantment in it. It is forbidden by the faculty. Yet the secret committee is appointed; the necessary funds are raised; and at the appointed time the password is handed down, from pew to pew along each aisle, during the hours of Christian prayer! Bound together by mutual interest, strong in their union, armed with deadly weapons, disguised beyond discovery, the students, in procession, keep time to solemn measures. Arrived at the Temple, the long coffin is laid upon the stage. The motley group perhaps is silen6ed. The funeral dirge is played. The prayer with awful mockery is prayed. The mournful chant is sung. The sermon, full of strange oaths and blasphemy, is preached.

The procession again is formed, to march to the funeral pyre. The hearse, drawn by six white steeds with flowing plumes, makes, at dead of night, an imposing array. The dance of demons round the lighted fire, closes the bewildering scene. It is eyen grand in its blasphemy. But the grandeur will not correct the evil. And if, while looking at Its causes and effects, we look on the darkest side of the picture, we know that we are at the same time looking on the only truthful side which the Burial of Euclid presents to the candid observer.

The occasion of the first Burial of Euclid, we do not know. The causes that have led to the rise and continuance of the custom, are very evident. A love of excitement, which pervades all, in itself harmless, asks for it. In many, a taste for doing what is forbidden, and which delights in the annoyance of others, requires it. In some, a morbid feeling of inability to find enjoyment and pleasure save in excesses, demands it. And, to defend it against the attacks of the faculty or any outside influence, the present condition of college society, banded together by a wide-spread feeling of so-called honor and mutual interest, is peculiarly favorable.

The influence which the ‘Burial of Euclid’ exerts, its effects or results, might all be classed under the head of objections: for there is not one good thing that comes out of it. And first, not only from its very name and nature, but from the special exercises of each successive Burial, there cannot but emanate an influence destructive of all seriousness of feeling, and one that leads directly to open irreverence and profanity. The funeral rites, the pall, the bier, the funeral pyre, the paraphernalia of death, all are emblems, on which even to think and talk in a light and jesting manner is debasing, are here made the chief means of contributing to the revelries of the night. Again, the disgusting obscenities which are yearly regaled to all who will hear, and the oaths that fall without restraint from the lips of classmates and fellow-students, that consider the occasion of the Burial of Euclid, as the fittest opportunity to drink themselves drunk, all these are as deadening to morality, as poison to the lungs. The whole exercise from beginning to end exhales an aroma of immorality; the schemes are not complete without a rfiare of vileness; the speeches are not relished, unless enlivened by vulgarity and licentious wit. A third objection, is the lawless disturbance it occasions in the city, and the consequent odium, which falls, not only on the participants in the Burial, but upon the whole body of students indiscriminately. The unearthly sounds, which meet, at midnight, the ears of a quietloving community, are certainly a disturbance of the peace. The citizens complain of it, and justly; the papers of the city echo their complaints; and thence they make their way, more or less accurately, throughout the country, until ‘Yale students’ has almost become a synonym for reckless deviltry, and the public associate the term with ‘Sioux Indians’ and other savage tribes of these wild denizens of the forest. We might add as another objection, though one of comparatively little weight, its character of excess, when considered merely as a recreation, or means of pleasure. The excitement for all engaged or interested in the varied exercises, is unnaturally great. It is continued, too, without diminution, through many hours; and these hours are those in which especially the physical nature requires repose. A reaction must sooner or later ensue; and, for a time, the mind, subjected to demoralizing influences, loses, also, its energy, from bodily weakness.

These effects we have not attempted to prove, but have stated them as facts. No one who has attended the exercises, even merely as spectator, can deny that these objectionable features have always, more or less, accompanied the Burial of Euclid. But it can be shown that these effects are not only the accidental but also the necessary results of such an ‘Institution,’ as the Burial of Euclid. So long as it exists, modify it as you will, these effects must follow. In our ‘Pow-wows,’ ‘Initiations,’ &c., there is often seen much of profanity and vulgarity. But there is nothing in their nature that makes this essential. It is therefore possible to change these ‘College Institutions,’ so that they shall become not only harmless, but of positive benefit. Of such a change the ‘Wooden Spoon’ affords a good example. But the Burial of Euclid is in its name, nature, and consequences, sacrilegious. Its grand object and design is to afford fun and amusement. To accomplish this design, the solemnities of life and religion are caricatured! If this be not sacrilege, what is? It is evident, moreover, that if this object and this means of accomplishing it, are changed, it is no longer the Burial of Euclid. For the past five or six years, it is true, attempts have been made on account of the pressure of public opinion, to do away with the grosser profanities, which once characterized the Burial. No longer perhaps, is the hideous mockery of prayer, psalm-singing, and a funeral sermon, yearly enacted; still there remains the solemn song, the funeral oration, and the farewell at the burning pyre! In the classes of ’59 and ’60, the majority in favor of the Burial of Euclid, was small, and only obtained, we believe, by promises and pledges on the part of the managers, that everything vulgar and profane should be excluded from the exercises. Nevertheless these promises, at least in the first case, did not begin to be fulfilled. The last two Burials have by no means shown any sign of improvement. It is then, from the nature of the Burial of Euclid, founded as it is in sacrilege, as well as from the facts in the case, that we reaffirm its tendency to irreverence and profanity; that we deny the possibility of any one’s attending the exercises, much less participating in them, without having the best feelings of his better nature deadened.

It is easy to show, furthermore, that where the foundation is laid in profanity, immoralities will thrive; for vulgarity, obscenity and profanity go hand in hand. The fact, also, that the audience are all masked, and the speakers are at the time, generally unknown to their hearers, is calculated to do away with the restraint that public opinion imposes, and thus, to give free scope to all that is low and base in man’s nature. A man will do secretly, what he dares not do, when the eyes of his companions are on him. Under this state of things, the Burial of Euclid is, as its most earnest supporters wish and consider it to be, a theatre for the exercise of all the species of immorality, to which students are addicted. While you can associate with classmates, the year round, and scarcely hear a single oath, one night’s experience in the Temple, will show that among some, when restraint is thrown off, it is fearfully prevalent. Nowhere is so much drunkenness seen. The bottle is passed from mask to mask, with an openness, that shows that the worst passions have completely gained the mastery. No wonder, that, marching through the streets of New Haven in such a state, they should be considered rowdies and lawless disturbers of order, as they are. It may be said, that those to whom these remarks apply, constitute but a small part of the participants in the Burial. Whether this be so or not, it is certainly these persons, few though they be, that give character to the Burial of Euclid; and it is men of this stamp, whose influence predominates throughout. Attendance on such scenes cannot but be detrimental to the best interests of man’s moral nature, and enervating to his character.

The question then is not, ‘Ought the Burial of Euclid to be abolished?’ but ‘How can it be totally abolished?’ It was natural to suppose, that if a class voted to do away with it, that, for one year at least, the nuisance would be abolished. The class of ’62 did thus vote to do away with it, and by a heavy majority. This was certainly encouraging. They did themselves honor. The fact speaks well for the high tone of moral sentiment in the class. But this vote did not prevent the Burial of Euclid. The schemes moreover declared that it was the ‘Burial of Euclid of the class of ’62!’ It is not surprising, however, that persons who could engage with delight, in exercises so disgustingly low, as those of the last Burial, should not hesitate to falsify. Yet we should have supposed, that even they would, at least, have left off the significant motto.

We trust, that henceforward college opinion will be pure enough to prevent any class again giving sanction to this disgrace of our college. Its supporters then, few in numbers, will find that the loss of popular support has taken from it the pomp and quasi magnificence, which, in some measure, have covered its defects. Its enchantment will be gone. It must, therefore, either die at once, or if it continues a few years longer, since no one who has any self-respect will attend, it will naturally grow worse and worse, till it sinks under the intolerable incubus of its own disrepute. Then, it can be said, that no longer does Yale College either sanction or permit, even in its recreations, what would cause an honest man to blush.

W. C. J.

Yale Literary Magazine, December, 1859, pp. 222-227.

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