Dead Bargain

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?”

Casket Trouble

“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

One Last Thrill

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.”

Private Exit,_Untergang_der_%22Lusitania%22.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

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.


In 1798 Horatio Nelson’s navy defeated a French fleet off the coast of Egypt. Captain Benjamin Hallowell, who helped to destroy the French flagship L’Orient, sent Nelson a macabre gift:

My Lord,

Herewith I send you a Coffin made of part of L’Orient’s Main mast, that when you are tired of this Life you may be buried in one of your own Trophies — but may that period be far distant, is the sincere wish of your obedient and much obliged servant,

Ben Hallowell

Nelson was indeed buried in it after his death in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Fleeting Panic

But many observers have commented on what seems to be the fact that fear plays a much smaller part than we should think it must in the life of an animal who lives dangerously. Terror he can know, and perhaps he knows it frequently. But it seems to last only a little longer than the immediate danger it helps him to avoid, instead of lingering, as in the human being it does, until it becomes a burden and a threat. The frightened bird resumes his song as soon as danger has passed, and so does the frightened rabbit his games. It is almost as though they knew that ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.’

— Joseph Wood Krutch, The Twelve Seasons, 1949

Last Words

Suicide notes left by people jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, gathered by Marc Etkind for Or Not to Be: A Collection of Suicide Notes, 1997:

“This is where I get off.” — Harold W., the first suicide, three months after the bridge opened, 1937

“Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache.” — 49-year-old John Thomas D.

“I am sorry … I want to keep dad company.” — 24-year-old Charles G. Jr., whose father had jumped four days earlier

“Do not notify my mother. She has a heart condition.” — Steven H., the 500th person to jump

“Why do they leave this so easy for suicide? Barbed wires would save a lot of lives.” — A 72-year-old man

“I and my daughter have committed suicide.” — A man who jumped with his 5-year-old daughter

“Loved Ones: My nerves are shot. Please forgive me. Chris” — A member of the San Francisco board of supervisors. This was a fake — he turned up a year later selling Bibles in Houston.

One person leapt with $36 in his mouth. “What he meant by this gesture is open to interpretation.”

“Obvious reasons for the bridge’s popularity are that it is easy and effective,” Etkind writes, “but there must be something more, for many suicides travel over the equally effective and accessible Oakland Bridge just to jump off the Golden Gate.”

Figure and Ground

The tradition of flying a flag at half-staff began when a symbolic space was left at the top of the staff for the “invisible flag of death,” signifying death’s dominion over earthly affairs.

A riderless horse accompanies the funeral procession of U.S. military officers. The horse above, Black Jack, accompanied more than 1,000 such processions, including those for John F. Kennedy, Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Johnson, and Douglas MacArthur.

When Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova died in 1931, her next show went on as scheduled, with a spotlight circling an empty stage.

Great Minds

boullee newton cenotaph

In 1784, French architect Étienne-Louis Boullée proposed building an enormous cenotaph for Isaac Newton, a cypress-fringed globe 500 feet high. A sarcophagus would rest on a raised catafalque at the bottom of the sphere; by day light would enter through holes pierced in the globe, simulating starlight, and at night a lamp hung in the center would represent the sun.

“I want to situate Newton in the sky,” Boullée wrote. “Sublime mind! Vast and profound genius! Divine being! Newton! Accept the homage of my weak talents. … O Newton! … I conceive the idea of surrounding thee with thy discovery, and thus, somehow, surrounding thee with thyself.”

As far as I can tell, this is unrelated to Thomas Steele’s proposal to enshrine Newton’s house under a stone globe, which came 41 years later. Apparently Newton just inspired globes.

Tomb Evader

When you die, perhaps you will cease to exist. Or perhaps you’ll be reincarnated, or your soul will go to heaven, or to hell. But in none of these cases will “you” be placed in a casket and lowered into the ground; you will never find yourself in the grave. What all these conceptions have in common is that the dead cannot be buried — they are either elsewhere, or nowhere.

Socrates says, “I cannot make Crito believe that I am the same Socrates who have been talking and conducting the argument; he fancies that I am the other Socrates whom he will soon see, a dead body — and he asks, How shall he bury me? … I shall not remain, but go away and depart; and then he will suffer less at my death, and not be grieved when he sees my body being burned or buried. I would not have him sorrow at my hard lot, or say at the burial, Thus we lay out Socrates, or, Thus we follow him to the grave or bury him. … Be of good cheer, then, my dear Crito, and say that you are burying my body only, and do with that whatever is usual, and what you think best.”

(Palle Yourgrau, “Can the Dead Really Be Buried?”, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 24:1, 46-68.)