Summary of T. S. Eliot’s The Burial of the Dead

The Burial of the Dead is the opening section of The Waste Land by T S Eliot. In the first section, the general theme of The Waste Land has been stated. It has been stated that life in the contemporary world is a life-in-death. It is a living death, for man has lost faith in spiritual values. There is general decay and decomposition. Love has degenerated into lust, sex has lost its proper function, and is no longer a source of life and vitality.


April, the month of spring, is the cruelest month for the modern Waste Landers, for it reminds them of life and activity (of which they do not like to be reminded). Lilacs (lily flowers) grow out of the land which had remained dead, so to say, in the winter months. The month of April mixes up both memories and desires in their consciousness. Their dull souls are stirred up as the roots of trees and plants are stirred up into activity by spring rain.

Marie, a German Princess, remembers her love-experiences and sexual pleasures during the winter season which is now over. In the winter season the earth was covered with snow and there were no stirrings of life and so the need for action was forgotten. There was minimum of activity, and spiritually they were as dry and dead as dried tubers (roots). But they migrated to the South, where it was warm and pleasant (and where they could have their fill of sexual and sensual pleasures). When they were near the lake Starnbergersee in Germany, rain came so early in summer that they were taken by surprise and took shelter under a row of trees. When it was sunshine again they went to Hofgarten, a pleasure park in Munich, Germany. There they drank coffee and talked for an hour. The German Princess tells her companion and lover that she was not Russian at all. She came from Luthinia and she was a real German. When they were children, they lived with their cousin, the arch-Duke, once he took her out for a ride in a sledge (a small dog-driven cart). He drove fast, and she was frightened. The Duke asked her to hold him tightly. She did so, and down they went. In the mountains a person feels free (freely enjoys sex). She then tells her that she reads for a long time during the nights and then goes South in the winter season. (Marie is a typical Waste Lander, and such is life in the modern waste land).

The modern waste land is entirely desolate and the people are all spiritually dead and sterile. It is like a rocky barren land in which no trees can grow. There is no fertile soil but only stones and rubbish. In this waste land Man does not know what spiritual fertility means. In this waste land there are only heaps of broken images or idols (false spiritual values); it is scorched with the heat of the sun, the trees are dead and give no shelter, and the singing of the cricket provides no relief, and no life-giving water flows over the dry stones. The waste landers can protect themselves from the heat of the sun, only by taking shelter in the shadow of the red rock. This shade ur protection of the red rock is entirely different from the shadow (of Death) which is behind them in the morning (early life) and which rises to meet them in the evening of life (old age), and of which they are so much afraid. Man is mortal, a mere handful of dust, and he lives in constant fear of death.

Then follow two extracts from a German opera of Wagner entitled Trista and Isolde, and they enclose within them another episode of guilty love. The first four lines in German mean that fresh blows the wind, and the ocean is calm, but his beloved has not come. Where does she linger? The other extract of one line means “empty and desolate the sea.” The lover is hopeless. He is ill and will die soon. Guilty love results in spiritual deadness. This is also illustrated by the episode of the Hyacinth girl. The lover wept after illicit sex, he could not see or speak any thing. He could not understand the truth.

There is spiritual degeneration all around in the modern waste land. Even the function of the Tarot pack of cards has degenerated. It is used for fortune-telling and thus cheating the credulous people. Madame Sorostises, the famous fortune-teller, is sick and suffers from cold. But she is considered to be the wisest woman in Europe, as she can foretell the future with a wicked pack of cards. Her clients stand round them, and she shows them, one by one, the cards which foretell there respective futures. On one of the cards there is a picture of a drowned Phoenician sailor, (whose eyes have been transformed into pearls by the re-generating power of water) but such regenerating is not possible in the modern age. On another card there is the picture of Belladonna, a hard-hearted lady, and so called ‘the Lady of the Rocks’, who is an expert in manipulating sex-intrigues. On another card there is the picture of a man with three staves (The man may be the legendary King Fisher with his Trishul, symboling the three-fold way of salvation). Next there is a card with the picture of a wheel on it (symbolising the ups and downs of life). Then there is the card with the picture of a one-eyed merchant on it (symbolising the degeneration of the Syrian merchants). Then there is a blank card, a card on which the fortune- teller sees no picture, but it is supposed to represent something which he, the Syrian merchant, carried on his back (it symbolises religion and the mystery of religious truths which the degenerate fortune-teller fails to see Of understand). She does not find the card with the picture of the Hanged Man (Christ) on it (because she is blind to spiritual truths). She advised one of her clients to fear death by water. Then she sees crowds of people walking in a ring (symbolising the dull routine of modern life). Then one of the clients pays to her, her fee, and she thanks him (or her). She also asks this client to tell Mrs. Equitone, if he happens to meet her, that she would herself bring her horoscope to her. Fortune telling is an illegal activity and so they have to be very careful.

The poet next addresses the “unreal city’ which may be any city in the modern waste land–London, Paris or any other- for there is the same spiritual desolation everywhere. The poet observes it from a distance covered with the brown fog of the winter morning. He sees a crowd of people flowing over the London bridge, and he had never imagined that there were so many dead people (spiritually dead). They sighed frequently, as if they were in great suffering. Each of them walked with his eyes fixed on his feet. They were all unhappy and dissatisfied with downcast eyes. They went up the hill, and then went down to King William Street, a street in which a number of banks and offices are located, and in which these spiritually dead people work. There stands the church of Saint Mary Woolnoth, and the sound of its clock striking the hour nine is a deadly sound to them, for it is the time when they must commence their daily work (which is hateful and tiresome to them). The poet (or Tiresias) recognises one of them and stops him by calling loudly his name “Stetson”. They were together in the same ship at Mylae ( a great naval battle in the ancient Punic war between Rome and Cathage). Last year Stetson had planted a corpse in his garden, and now his friend asks him, if it has begun to sprout and will it bear flowers this year, (corpse here symbolises spiritual deadness) and its sprouting symbolises spiritual regeneration, or has it been completely deadened by sudden unexpected frost. He advised Stetson to keep away at a distance the dog, who is a friend to man, and who would dig out the corpse with its nails, and so prevent it from sprouting (Dog symbolises human conscience which reminds man of the need of spiritual regeneration, but such effort is disliked by the spiritually degenerate modern man and hence he likes to keep the dog far away). The passage concludes with the words, “you hypocrite you are like me. You are my brother.” In other words, all are equally dead spiritually in the modern waste land.

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