The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.
Some men with swords may reap the field,
And plant fresh laurels where they kill:
But their strong nerves at last must yield;
They tame but one another still:
Early or late
They stoop to fate,
And must give up their murmuring breath
When they, pale captives, creep to death.
The garlands wither on your brow,
Then boast no more your mighty deeds!
Upon Death's purple altar now
See where the victor-victim bleeds.
Your heads must come
To the cold tomb:
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.
This poem by James Shirley as the title indicates declares that death is the great equaliser; when we die we are all reduced to dust.
Herman Charles Bosman probably had this poem in mind when he wrote Unto Dust. In the fifth paragraph of the story, Stoffel Oosthuizen makes the following remark, “There were people who talked in a high-flown way of death as the great leveller, he said, and those high-flown people also declared that everyone was made kin by death.”
In the first three paragraphs of Unto Dust, Bosman shows us that in their attitudes to death, people do not accept death as an equaliser. People differentiate between young people whose deaths are “beautiful and touching” and old people, whose deaths are of little interest except to old people themselves.
Old people’s attitudes depend on the lives they believe they have led. Old Andries Wessels, who believed he had led a blameless life, was happy to die. He could sense angels all around him, waiting to take him to heaven. But Bosman’s puckish sense of humour doesn’t leave it at that. When Andries Wessels says he can see the angels, he describes them as medium-sized, with cloven hoofs, carrying forks and that description fits the conventional notion of the devil. So we are made to question whether Andries Wessels really led a blameless life. Further, we are made to wonder whether our beliefs about death and the afterlife are delusional.
Next, the narrator describes a nightmare he had when he was ill. In his feverish state he saw the earth as a huge graveyard in which all bodies, black and white as well as animal bodies were thrown together in confusion. When he recovers, he is relieved to realise that Boers mark out individual graves on their farms where they are buried ‘in a civilized Christian way.’ In other words, he is happy to believe that in death, Boers are still separate from the rest. This dream and the narrator’s reaction to it set up the premise for the story. It prepares us for Stoffel Oosthuizen and the story he will tell about Hans Welman.
“There were people who talked in a high-flown way of death as the great leveller, he (Stoffel Oosthuizen) said, and those high-flown people also declared that everyone was made kin by death.” Stoffel Oosthuizen doesn’t believe in racial equality, in death or in life. He says that the Boers trekked away from the Cape because the British wanted to give the vote to the Cape Coloured; having the vote would have given them equal status.
Stoffel tells the story of Hans Welman. It is set during a war, the natural setting for death. Boers and Africans were fighting. An African warrior, who followed by his very faithful dog, kills Welman and strips the corpse of its clothes. Outraged, Oosthuizen shoots and kills the warrior who falls down next to the naked corpse of Welman. The warrior’s dog remains with his master and mourns over his body. The bodies lie there for about six months and when Oosthuizen and others come to find Welman’s corpse, they find a jumble of bones and blackened flesh and cannot tell the white man from the black man. The party spends the whole day trying to sort out the white man’s bones from the black man’s bones. They take what they believe are Welman’s bones and bury the rest on the spot.
They are very disturbed at not being able to tell the difference between the bones because that contradicts their belief in racial difference. They are ready to attack anyone who would dare to suggest otherwise. “They wanted somebody – just once – to make a remark such as ‘in death they were not divided.’”
They bury Hans Welman in his separate grave on his farm. And Stoffel Oosthuizen is shocked and disturbed when he finds the African warrior’s dog haunting the grave.
It seems that though humans cannot tell the difference, the dog can. Apparently, in sorting out the bones, they have chosen most of the Black man’s bones. And it is amusing that these Boers who believe in keeping the races apart, have taken a Black man into their midst and given him that separate grave meant to keep White people apart from Black people.
Much of the ironic humour derives from the fact that it is a Boer who tells the story. So the reader is put in the situation where s/he takes racial segregation for granted and then this belief is contradicted by events and shown to be ridiculous. Bosman seems to be saying that much of what we believe is a projection of our own desires.