Even from his college years, Burnham was frequently ill and physically weak, resulting in his abandoning of classes (Williams College granted him a degree anyway). "If I get well, to God will be all the praise," he wrote; "if not, I hope and pray that I may be prepared to submit cheerfully to anything he may have in store for me." Friends agreed that he made up for his ill health by having an unshakeable optimism and convivial personality. When his health recovered, he pursued his literary pursuits, contributing to a wide variety of magazines and periodicals. When he lapsed back into ill health at the end of his life, the doctor told him he would not recover. "It is all right," he responded. When he died at age 40, his final utterance was recorded as, "Beautiful!" His "Decoration Hymn" (addressed to soldiers of the Civil War):
They rest from the conflict, their labor is ended,
Their battles are fought and their victories gained;
Their spirits heroic to God have ascended,
Their memory is left us with honor unstained.
Beneath the green sod their bodies are sleeping,
Above them in beauty the dewy grass waves,
While comrades this day are sacredly keeping,
And strewing with flowers, their glorious graves.
We know that our flowers will wither and perish,
Our flags too, will droop in the still summer air;
But deep in our hearts their memory we'll cherish,
With love that the passing years ne'er will impair.
To us is the weeping, while theirs is the glory;
From danger and duty they ne'er turned aside;
Heroic their deeds and immortal their story,—
They fought for their country, and conquering, died.
No longer they listen the tramp of the legions
That steadily marched to the field of the dead,
From East and from West, and from far distant regions,
Resistless in numbers and firm in their tread.
Yes, honor and glory for them are eternal,
The nation they ransomed their memory will keep;
Fame's flowers immortal will bloom ever vernal
O'er the graves where our heroes in glory now sleep.