A man was hanged who had cut his throat, but who had been brought back to life. They hanged him for suicide. The doctor had warned them that it was impossible to hang him as the throat would burst open and he would breathe through the aperture. They did not listen to his advice and hanged their man. The wound in the neck immediately opened and the man came back to life again although he was hanged. It took time to convoke the aldermen to decide the question of what was to be done. At length the aldermen assembled and bound up the neck below the wound until he died. O my Mary, what a crazy society and what a stupid civilization.
– Russian exile Nicholas Ogarev, writing to his English mistress Mary Sutherland, 1860, quoted in Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, 1971
In 1554 Sir James Hales drowned himself. The coroner returned a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Sir James was guilty of the felony of self-murder. His estate was forfeited to the crown, which planned to award it to one Cyriac Petit. Sir James’ widow, Margaret, contested this. So the case turned on the question whether the grounds for forfeiture had occurred during Sir James’ lifetime: Had his suicide occurred during his life, or after his death?
Margaret Hales’ counsel argued that one can’t be guilty of suicide while one is still living, practically by definition, so self-murder shouldn’t be classed as a felony: “He cannot be felo de se till the death is fully consummate, and the death precedes the felony and the forfeiture.”
But Petit’s counsel argued that part of the act of suicide lies in planning to do it, which certainly occurs during life: “The act consists of three parts: the first is the imagination, which is a reflection or meditation of the mind, whether or not it is convenient for him to destroy himself, and what way it can be done; the second is the resolution, which is a determination of the mind to destroy himself; the third is the perfection, which is the execution of what the mind had resolved to do. And of all the parts, the doing of the act is the greatest in the judgment of our law, and it is in effect the whole.”
The court ruled for Petit, finding that Sir James had killed himself during his lifetime: “The forfeiture shall have relation to the time the original offence began which caused the death, and that was the throwing himself into the water, which was done in his lifetime and this act was felony. That which caused the death may be said to be feloniously done. The felony is attributed to the act, which act is always done by a living man; for, Brown said, Sir James Hales was dead, and how came he by his death? It may be answered by drowning; and who drowned him? Sir James Hales; and when did he this? It can be answered, in his lifetime. So that Sir James Hales being alive caused Sir James Hales to be dead, and the act of the living man caused the death of the dead man.”
The case is remembered, and not charitably, in the churchyard scene in Hamlet:
First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
Second Clown: But is this law?
First Clown: Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.
When Arizona copper prospector James Kidd disappeared in 1949, he left behind a curious will:
this is my first and only will and is dated the second day in January 1946. I have no heirs have not married in my life, after all my funeral expenses have been paid and #100, one hundred dollars to some preacher of the gospital to say fare well at my grave sell all my property which is all in cash and stocks with E F Hutton Co Phoenix some in safety deposit box, and have this balance money go into a reserach or some scientific proof of a soul of the human body which leaves at death I think in time their can be a Photograph of soul leaving the human at death, James Kidd
He left it in a safe deposit box, so it didn’t come to light until 1963, by which time Kidd’s estate had appreciated to nearly $200,000. This attracted more than 100 claimants, each of which argued it was best qualified to find the human soul. The Neurological Sciences Foundation of Phoenix, for example, said that it was working with hallucinogenic agents, biochemical controls of the brain, and the nervous system. “To the extent that the ‘soul’ is a function of the human body,” it insisted, “to this extent our work … is relevant to the intent of the will.”
Arizona superior court judge Robert L. Myers finally awarded the legacy to a local neurological institute, but after an additional six years of litigation it went to the American Society for Psychical Research. “The Kidd legacy was not only a windfall,” wrote Nicholas Wade in Science, “but proved the parapsychologists could at least convince a court of the seriousness of their intentions.”
An American, named Sanborn, living at Medford, Mass., in his will, dated 1871, bequeathed his body to Harvard University, and ‘especially to the manipulation of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Agassiz.’ He requested that his skin be made into two drumheads, to become the property of his life-long friend, Warren Simpson, leader of a drum corps, of Cohasset, on condition that on Bunker Hill at sunrise, June 17th, each year, he should beat on the said drum the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle.’ On one drum-head was to be inscribed Pope’s ‘Universal Prayer,’ and on the other the ‘Declaration of Independence.’
‘The remainder of my body,’ he continues, ‘unless for anatomical purposes, to be composted for a fertilizer to contribute to the growth of an American elm, to be planted in some rural thoroughfare, that the weary wayfarer may rest, and innocent children play beneath its umbrageous branches rendered luxuriant by my remains.’
– Current Opinion, 1902
Before his death in 1923, Curtis Lloyd erected an enormous granite monument to himself in the Kentucky woods. One side reads:
CURTIS G. LLOYD BORN 1859 — DIED 60 OR MORE YEARS AFTERWARDS. THE EXACT NUMBER OF YEARS, MONTHS AND DAYS THAT HE LIVED NOBODY KNOWS AND NOBODY CARES.
The other side reads:
CURTIS G. LLOYD MONUMENT ERECTED IN 1922 BY HIMSELF FOR HIMSELF DURING HIS LIFE TO GRATIFY HIS OWN VANITY. WHAT FOOLS THESE MORTALS BE!
World War I ended at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918. Each year at that moment, sunlight shining through the window of the Canadian War Museum illuminates the headstone of Canada’s Unknown Soldier.
In Gray, Maine, is a tombstone reading:
STRANGER — A SOLDIER OF THE LATE WAR. DIED 1862. ERECTED BY THE LADIES OF GRAY.
Lt. Charles Colley of the 10th Maine Volunteers had died that September at Alexandria, Va., and his parents had paid to have his remains embalmed and transported home. When they opened the casket, they found the body of a uniformed Confederate soldier. After some consternation the town interred him, and it commemorates the unknown soldier each Memorial Day. (Colley’s body arrived a week later and is buried 100 feet away.)
An epitaph in Keesville, N.Y., quoted in John R. Kippax, Churchyard Literature, 1876:
HERE LIES A MAN OF GOOD REPUTE,
WHO WORE A NO. 16 BOOT.
‘TIS NOT RECORDED HOW HE DIED,
BUT SURE IT IS, THAT OPEN WIDE,
THE GATES OF HEAVEN MUST HAVE BEEN
TO LET SUCH MONSTROUS FEET WITHIN.
Charles Wallis’ Stories on Stone records the epitaph of Dr. Fred Roberts in Pine Log Cemetery, Brookland, Ark.:
OFFICE UP STAIRS.
An epitaph on a trout, near a pond in Blockley, England:
UNDER THE SOIL
THE OLD FISH DO LIE
20 YEARS HE LIVED
AND THEN DID DIE.
HE WAS SO TAME
HE WOULD COME AND
EAT OUT OF OUR HAND.
DIED APRIL 20, 1855.
AGED 20 YEARS.
Below: The German word for cobblestone translates literally as “headstone” — so artist Timm Ulrichs offered this “cobblestone” pavement:
PARISEAU, N. De, born in 1753; a celebrated victim of the ‘mistakes’ of the guillotine. Pariseau was director of the opera ballets at Paris, and ardently espoused the cause of the revolution in ‘La Feuille du Jour.’ He was arrested by the Revolutionary Tribunal in 1793, and beheaded by mistake, instead of Parisot, a captain of the king’s guard.
– The Biographical Treasury, 1847
When Charlie Parker’s 2-year-old daughter Pree died of pneumonia on March 6, 1954, he was in Los Angeles fulfilling a week-long engagement at the Tiffany Club. His wife, Chan, sent a wire from New York to let him know that they had lost her, and received four telegrams in reply:
MY DARLING MY DAUGHTER’S DEATH SURPRISED ME MORE THAN IT DID YOU DON’T FULFILL FUNERAL PROCEEDINGS UNTIL I GET THERE I SHALL BE THE FIRST ONE TO WALK INTO OUR CHAPEL FORGIVE ME FOR NOT BEING THERE WITH YOU WHILE YOU ARE AT THE HOSPITAL YOURS MOST SINCERELY YOUR HUSBAND CHARLIE PARKER.
MY DARLING FOR GOD’S SAKE HOLD ON TO YOURSELF
MY DAUGHTER IS DEAD. I KNOW IT. I WILL BE THERE AS QUICK AS I CAN. MY NAME IS BIRD. IT IS VERY NICE TO BE OUT HERE. PEOPLE HAVE BEEN VERY NICE TO ME OUT HERE. I AM COMING IN RIGHT AWAY TAKE IT EASY. LET ME BE THE FIRST ONE TO APPROACH YOU. I AM YOUR HUSBAND. SINCERELY, CHARLIE PARKER.
He never forgave himself for being absent during Pree’s death. “Bird detached from things to save himself, which meant that in a way the sadness between them was very powerful,” recalled his stepdaughter, Kim. “I’ve seen very sad photographs of them … shortly after Pree’s death, and there’s just a complete space between them, and I think it was just the beginning of the end, really.” A year later he too was dead.
When Dutch army colonel J.W.C. van Gorkum died in 1880, he was laid to rest in a Protestant cemetery. His wife, Lady J.C.P.H. van Aefferden, knew that her Catholic faith destined her for a separate cemetery. So she contrived a solution: Before her death in 1888, she requested the burial plot abutting the colonel’s and asked that the tombstones “join hands” over the wall — so that the two of them could hold hands through eternity.
I hate you.
– Suicide note quoted in Marc Etkind, Or Not to Be: A Collection of Suicide Notes, 1997
From the agony I have been through for no reason whatever I can only come to the logical conclusion that if there is a god that he is not so good as is made out.
– A young clerk’s suicide note, quoted in Olive Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, 1987
Kids, if there are any errors in this letter, I did not proof it carefully.
– From the 1985 suicide note of Cleveland superintendent of schools Frederick Holliday, who shot himself in a high school stairwell on learning that the school board planned to oust him
In 1930, San Quentin death row inmate William Kogut removed one of the hollow steel legs from his cot, stuffed it with red pips torn from from several packs of playing cards, and soaked them with water. Then he plugged one end of the pipe with a broom handle, rested it on a kerosene heater, and held the open end against his head. The red ink contained enough nitrocellulose to cause an explosion that drove the card fragments into Kogut’s head, killing him.
His note to the warden said that he was punishing himself for the murder of Mayme Guthrie. “Do not blame my death on any one because I fixed everything myself,” he wrote. “I never give up as long as I am living and have a chance, but this is the end.”
A gruesome detail from the siege of Leningrad, from the diary of ballet teacher Vera Sergeevna Kostrovitskaia, April 1942:
And there, across from the entrance to the Philharmonic, by the square, there is a large lamppost.
With his back to the post, a man sits on the snow, tall, wrapped in rags, over his shoulders a knapsack. He is all huddled up against the post. Apparently he was on his way to the Finland Station, got tired, and sat down. For two weeks while I was going back and forth to the hospital, he ‘sat’
- without his knapsack
- without his rags
- in his underwear
- a skeleton with ripped-out entrails
They took him away in May.
That’s from Cynthia Simmons and Nina Perlina, Writing the Siege of Leningrad, 2002. They add, “The man was apparently heading for the Finland Station in the hope of getting out of Leningrad on Lake Ladoga, the ‘Road of Life.’”
Housewife Sof’ia Nikolaevna Buriakova remembered, “Having grown numb from work, having lost a sense of what was permissible, the gravediggers stooped to all sorts of disgusting jokes, even blatantly violating the deceased. On the road leading to the communal grave a tall corpse had been stood with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth. His frozen, iced-over arm pointed the way to the trench graves.”
Marshal Ney directed his own execution. The military commander, whom Napoleon had called “the bravest of the brave,” was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad in December 1815. He refused a blindfold and requested the right to give the order to fire, which was granted:
“Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, fire!”
Related: In 1849 Fyodor Dostoyevsky was arrested for his membership in a secret society of St. Petersburg intellectuals. He and his friends were standing before a firing squad when word came that the tsar had commuted their sentence. He spent the next four years at hard labor in Siberia.
In contrast to the usual lugubrious tombstones, the “merry cemetery” in Săpânța, Romania, fills hundreds of colorful markers with darkly humorous biographies of the town’s residents:
Here I rest
Pop Grigore is my name
My tractor was my joy
Drowned my sorrow in my wine
I lived a troubled life
For my father left me young
Such my fate was
That I should leave life
Death, you took me early
I was only 33.
Here I appear as well
On my father-in-law’s cross
Pop Grigore is my name
And I want to tell you all
That I learned in school
Finished high school
I was an accountant
And helped the state
The cuckoo sang my song
To die in Sighetu
And I left this life when I
Was 35 years old.
One more thing I loved very much,
To sit at a table in a bar
Next to someone else’s wife.
Death with ugly name
Swiftly you took me away
You did not feel sorry for me
I must see my girls
And son get married
Build them beautiful house
And give them good advice
On how to live in this world
Marie, my wife
You remained as a host
To be their mom and dad
Marry them well
And raise Irina with care
I cannot join you anymore
For I have stepped on foreign lands
I have nothing more to say
From this other world I am in.
The tradition was started by local carpenter Stan Ioan Pătraș, who in 1935 began carving candid epitaphs for the town’s residents, like a Romanian Edgar Lee Masters. Pătraș died in 1977 and left the business to his apprentice, Dumitru Pop, who says that in 30 years no one has ever complained about the tradition. “It’s the real life of a person. If he likes to drink, you say that; if he likes to work, you say that … There’s no hiding in a small town … The families actually want the true life of the person to be represented on the cross.”
“The people here don’t react to death as though it were a tragedy,” the town’s Orthodox priest told the New York Times. “Death is just a passage to another life.”
Angelo Lerro hated the thought of a body mouldering in a traditional casket, so in 1910 he offered this tidy alternative: The body is embalmed and arranged in a natural posture in a hermetically sealed glass bell filled with a preservative gas. This way the survivors can view the deceased without distress, and entire graveyards can be filled with sealed bells to keep soil and watercourses clean. (I suppose it will also keep down the vampire population.)
In 1833 a cholera outbreak struck Guanajuato, Mexico, and the dead were buried in a local cemetery. Sixty-three years later, in 1896, city officials levied a fee on burial plots, and poor families had to agree to have their dead relatives disinterred. They were horrified to discover not skeletons but grotesquely preserved bodies, contorted into nightmarish postures and facial expressions. The region’s climate and soil conditions had combined to preserve the corpses.
The city has put 119 of the bodies, some still bearing hair, eyebrows, and folds of skin, on display. Author Tom Weil writes, “In the figures one sees both the living and the departed, death with a human face and humanity with the skull beneath the skin.”
Ray Bradbury, who visited the museum in the 1940s, wrote, “They looked as if they had leaped, snapped upright in their graves, clutched hands over their shriveled bosoms and screamed, jaws wide, tongues out, nostrils flared. And been frozen that way. All of them had open mouths. Theirs was a perpetual screaming.
“The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.”
In 1830, architect Thomas Willson proposed housing London’s dead in a gigantic pyramid, “a metropolitan cemetery on a scale commensurate with the necessities of the largest city in the world, embracing prospectively the demands of centuries, sufficiently capacious to receive 5,000,000 of the dead, where they may repose in perfect security, without interfering with the comfort, the health, the business, the property, or the pursuits of the living.”
Willson’s necropolis would have covered 18 acres but would consolidate graves that would require 50 times that space in a conventional graveyard. With a base the size of Russell Square and a height greater than St. Paul’s, its granite-faced bulk would surpass the great pyramid of Giza. Through an Egyptian portal visitors would enter a surrounding enclosure decorated with statuary, cenotaphs, and monuments, as well as a chapel, a register office, and dwellings for the keeper, the clerk, the sexton, and the superintendent. They could ascend any side of the pyramid by a vast flight of stairs, at the top reaching an obelisk crowned with an observatory.
“This grand mausoleum,” Willson announced, “will go far towards completing the glory of London. It will rise in majesty over its splendid fanes and lofty towers,–teaching the living to die, and the dying to live for ever.” The cost he estimated at £2.5 million, but with 30,000 interments per year at £5 each, the pyramid would bring in £150,000 per year, saving £12.5 million over the course of a century in a project whose necessity, sadly, was certain to endure.
“However, the pyramid cemetery, instead of rearing its gloomy mountain-side into the clouds, and casting the shadow of death over every part of London in succession in the course of the day, exists only upon paper,” runs a contemporary report. “The dividends were too remote, and joint-stock people would not wait one hundred years for one hundred per cent.”
In Western religion we seek to attain immortality; in Eastern religion we seek to escape it.
“The secret of religious enlightenment, revealed to the Buddha as he sat beneath the Bo tree, is the suppression of desire, a systematic elimination of all our attachments to the world,” writes Gordon Graham in his Eight Theories of Ethics. “In such turning away comes moksha or release and eventually, for it may take more than one life to achieve it, entry to Nirvana — a term which captures both the idea of nothingness and of heaven. The Buddhist ideal, then, finds supreme value in personal extinction. (Whether this amounts to total extinction is a further matter.) In so doing it wholly discounts subjective values because it is these, after all, that keep us chained to the unending cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
“It is of great interest to note that, while Western minds are accustomed to think of religious faith as entailing the belief and hope that we will be saved from eternal death and live for ever, the belief of Eastern religions is that, other things being equal, we do live for ever and it is from this dreadful fate that we must look to spirituality to save us.”
Some amoebae, to be sure, do die. Sometimes an amoeba cannot get sufficient food or oxygen or moisture to sustain its life, and that kills it. But some amoebae do not get an opportunity to die … let us consider a well-fed, healthy amoeba alone in a drop of well-oxygenated pond water. I shall call it ‘Alvin.’ Alvin, let us suppose, lives happily through Tuesday and then, precisely at the stroke of midnight, Alvin divides, producing two offspring whom I shall call ‘Amos’ and ‘Ambrose.’ On Wednesday, we find two amoebae — Amos and Ambrose — swimming happily about in our drop of pond water. But what has become of Alvin? One thing is quite clear: Alvin is not an inhabitant of our drop of pond water on Wednesday. … His life, therefore, must have come to an end. But it is equally clear that Alvin did not die.
– Jay F. Rosenberg, Thinking Clearly About Death, 1983
The tombstone of Constanze Mozart’s second husband calls him “the husband of Mozart’s widow.”
While lying on his deathbed in 1816, Welsh judge George Hardinge received a bill from his London stationers, Tripeaux and Co. It was addressed to “Mr. Justice Hardinge, if living; or his executors, if dead.” He wrote back:
Messrs. Tripeaux, what is fear’d by you,
Alas! the melancholy circumstance is true,
That I am dead; and more afflicting still,
My legal assets cannot pay your bill.
To think of this, I am almost broken hearted,
Insolvent I, this earthly life departed;
Dear Messrs. T., I am yours without a farthing,
For executors and self,
He died three hours later.
In 1952, to “indulge a whim of a peculiar nature,” retired funeral director David H. Brown built a house out of 500,000 empty embalming-fluid bottles.
Situated on the shores of Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, the cloverleaf-shaped house occupies 1,200 square feet, including two bedrooms, a fireplace, a kitchen, and a terrace.
The bottles, together, weigh 250 tons.
On my deathbed I exact a promise from you. Then I die, and you ignore the promise. Most of us would feel that this is wrong, but why? If I no longer exist, then who is wronged by your omission?
Similarly, it seems wrong to disparage the dead, or to mistreat a corpse. But why? Can we have a moral obligation to a person who doesn’t exist? Do the dead have rights?
“The dead, if they exist at all, are so much dust,” writes philosopher George Pitcher. “How is it possible for so much dust to be wronged?”
“If Socrates died, he died either when he was alive or when he was dead. He did not die when he was alive — for then the same man would have been both living and dead. Nor when he was dead; for then he would have been dead twice. Therefore Socrates did not die.”
– Sextus Empiricus, Against the Physicists
In 2010 Lithuanian engineer Julijonas Urbonas designed the Euthanasia Coaster, a 7,500-meter roller coaster designed to kill its riders. After a 2-minute climb to the top of the drop tower, the 24 riders plunge 500 meters into a series of seven loops designed to subject them to 10 g for 60 seconds. This forces the blood away from their brains, causing first euphoria, then loss of consciousness and finally death by cerebral hypoxia.
Here’s what that looks like if you don’t black out:
When the train returns to the station, the corpses are unloaded and a new group of passengers can board. Urbonas says, “Thanks to the marriage of the advanced cross-disciplinary research in space medicine, mechanical engineering, material technologies, and, of course, gravity, the fatal journey is made pleasing, elegant, and meaningful.”
Elbert Hubbard died on the Lusitania. Ernest Cowper, a survivor of the sinking, described the writer’s last moments in a letter to Hubbard’s son the following year:
I can not say specifically where your father and Mrs. Hubbard were when the torpedoes hit, but I can tell you just what happened after that. They emerged from their room, which was on the port side of the vessel, and came on to the boat-deck.
Neither appeared perturbed in the least. Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms — the fashion in which they always walked the deck — and stood apparently wondering what to do. I passed him with a baby which I was taking to a lifeboat when he said, ‘Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.’
They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, ‘There does not seem to be anything to do.’
The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him.
It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.