"Our Little Fleet of Barques"
Let us sit till the Evening of Life is spent; the last Hours were always the most joyous. When we can stay no longer 'tis Time enough then to bid each other good Night, separate, and go quietly to bed.
--Franklin to Hugh Roberts, July 7, 1763
WHEN THE DAY CAME, April 17, 1790, he was ready.
All his life he had been gingerly taming death, stripping it of its awe and power, clothing it in appealing metaphors of travel and bliss, humoring it, giving it a place in the family circle until finally, obsessively, longingly it became "going to bed."
In the Puritan Boston of his childhood, death was not all that grim an event. Those who attended funerals expected gifts of gloves, rings, scarves. Had it not been for burials, weddings, and executions people would have had little occasion to congregate. Children often attended and acted as honorary pallbearers for other children.
Franklin's first tentative approach was the facetious epitaph he composed for himself when still young enough to be flippant about the faraway end:
The Body of
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be wholly lost:
For it will, as he believ'd, appear once more,
In a new & more perfect Edition,
Corrected and amended
By the Author.1
With the passing of years his outlook became more serious but remained resolutely optimistic, whether he was brooding on the af-