Exit

British statesman Charles James Fox died in 1806.

His last words to his wife were “Trotter will tell you.”

She had no idea what he meant.

A Body at Rest

newton mausoleum

In an anonymous letter to the London Times in 1825, Thomas Steele of Magdalen College, Cambridge, proposed enshrining Isaac Newton’s residence in a stepped stone pyramid surmounted by a vast stone globe. The physicist himself had died more than a century earlier, in 1727, and lay in Westminster Abbey, but Steele felt that preserving his home would produce a monument “not unworthy of the nation and of his memory”:

When travelling through Italy, I was powerfully struck by the unique situation and singular appearance of the Primitive Chapel at Assisi, founded by St. Francis.

As you enter the porch of the great Franciscan church, you view before you this small cottage-like chapel, standing directly under the dome, and perfectly isolated.

Now, Sir, among the many splendid improvements which are making in the capital, would it not be a noble, and perhaps the most appropriate, national monument which could be erected, if an azure hemispherical dome, or what would be better, a portion of a sphere greater than a hemisphere, supported on a massive base, were to be reared, like that of Assisi, over the house and observatory of the writer of the Principia?

The house might be fitted up in such a manner as to contain a council-chamber and library for the Royal Society; and it is perhaps not unworthy of being remarked, that it is not more than about two hundred yards distant from the University Club House.

Protected, by the means which I have described, from the dilapidating influence of rains and winds, the venerable edifice in which Newton studied, or was inspired, — that ‘palace of the soul,’ might stand fast for ages, a British monument more sublime than the Pyramids, though remote antiquity and vastness be combined to create their interest.

Steele wasn’t an architect, and he left the details to others, but he was imagining something enormous: In a subsequent letter to the Mechanics’ Magazine he wrote that “the base of my design [appears] to coincide with the base of St. Paul’s (a sort of crude coincidence of course, in consequence of the angle at the transept), and that the highest point of my designed building should, at the same time, appear to coincide with a point of the great tower of the cathedral, about 200 feet high — the height of the building which I propose to have erected.”

The plan never went forward, but the magazine endorsed the idea: “We need scarcely add, that there is no description of embellishment which might not be with ease introduced into the structure, so as to render it as perpetual a monument to the taste as it would be to the national spirit and gratitude of the British people.”

Late Arrival

Claudette is born in 1950 and dies in an accident in 2000. If the accident had not occurred she would lived until 2035. We think of this as a misfortune because her life has been cut short — she has lost 35 years.

But it’s equally true that Claudette might have been born in 1915 and enjoyed another 35 years of life in that way. Why don’t we regard this as equally tragic? “We feel uncomfortable with the idea that her late birth is as great a misfortune for Claudette as her premature death,” writes philosopher Fred Feldman. “Why is this?”

Lucretius wrote, “Think too how the bygone antiquity of everlasting time before our birth was nothing to us. Nature therefore holds this up to us as a mirror of the time yet to come after our death. Is there aught in this that looks appalling, aught that wears an aspect of gloom? Is it not more untroubled than any sleep?” Why are we more troubled at a lost future than a lost past?

So It Goes

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alca_impennisAMF064LB.png

The last great auk in the British Isles was killed because its keepers feared it might be a witch. In 1840 five men discovered it asleep on the Scottish island of Stac an Armin. From John Alexander Harvie-Brown’s Vertebrate Fauna of the Outer Hebrides (1888):

It was Malcolm M’Donald who actually laid hold of the bird, and held it by the neck with his two hands, till others came up and tied its legs. It used to make a great noise, like that made by a gannet, but much louder, when shutting its mouth. It opened its mouth when any one came near it. It nearly cut the rope with its bill. A storm arose, and that, together with the size of the bird and the noise it made, caused them to think it was a witch. It was killed on the third day after it was caught, and M’Kinnon declares they were beating it for an hour with two large stones before it was dead: he was the most frightened of all the men, and advised the killing of it.

They threw the body behind the hut and left it there.

When the last heath hen, “Booming Ben,” died in 1932 on Martha’s Vineyard, local newspaper editor Henry Beetle Hough wrote an obituary for the species: “There is a void in the April dawn, there is an expectancy unanswered … We are looking upon the utmost finality which can be written, glimpsing the darkness which will not know another ray of light. We are in touch with the reality of extinction.”

See I Think That I Shall Never See …

R.I.P.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tuts_Tomb_Opened.JPG

Letter from the Bishop of Chelmsford to the Times, Feb. 3, 1923:

Sir, I wonder how many of us, born and brought up in the Victorian era, would like to think that in the year, say, 5923, the tomb of Queen Victoria would be invaded by a party of foreigners who rifled it of its contents, took the body of the great Queen from the mausoleum in which it had been placed amid the grief of the whole people, and exhibited it to all and sundry who might wish to see it?

The question arises whether such treatment as we should count unseemly in the case of the great English Queen is not equally unseemly in the case of King Tutankhamen. I am not unmindful of the great historical value which may accrue from the examination of the collection of jewelry, furniture, and, above all, of papyri discovered within the tomb, and I realize that wide interests may justify their thorough investigation and even, in special cases, their temporary removal. But, in any case, I protest strongly against the removal of the body of the King from the place where it has rested for thousands of years. Such a removal borders on indecency, and traverses all Christian sentiment concerning the sacredness of the burial places of the dead.

J.E. Chelmsford

Life Goes On

A tombstone from “a well-known town in the north, Gateshead,” from Henry Sampson’s History of Advertising From the Earliest Times, 1875:

http://books.google.com/books?id=oUgUAQAAMAAJ

“Do tripe and trotters after all produce a prosaic condition of the human mind suggested by this tombstone, or would the relict of Jeremy have done as she did had her wares been of a different kind?” asks Sampson. “In the interests of the edibles referred to, for which we must confess a weakness, we trust she would.”

Departed

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paradiso_Canto_31.jpg

F.W.H. Myers, whom spiritualism had converted to belief in a future life, questioned a woman who had lately lost her daughter as to what she supposed had become of her soul. The mother replied: ‘Oh, well, I suppose she is enjoying eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such unpleasant subjects.’

— Bertrand Russell, “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish,” 1943

Death Takes a Holiday

Miss Mildred West, whose duties on the Alton [Ill.] Evening Telegraph include the writing of obituaries, has been taking a week’s vacation. And, for the first time in the memory of her fellow workers on the newspaper, a week has passed with no deaths being reported in this city of 32,000. Normally, ten occur every week.

New York Times, Sept. 1, 1946

Dante in France

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stretcher_bearers_Battle_of_Thiepval_Ridge_September_1916.jpg

Three nightmare glimpses of World War I:

The first experience I had of rotting bodies had been at Serre, where, as a battalion, we dealt with the best part of a thousand dead who came to pieces in our hands. As you lifted a body by its arms and legs they detached themselves from the torso, and this was not the worst thing. Each body was covered inches deep with a black fur of flies which flew up into your face, into your mouth, eyes and nostrils, as you approached. The bodies crawled with maggots. … We stopped every now and then to vomit. … The bodies had the consistency of Camembert cheese. I once fell and put my hand through the belly of a man. It was days before I got the smell out of my hands.

— British lieutenant Stuart Cloete on a burial party after the Somme, from his autobiography A Victorian Son

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on … [Later] we saw the sack we had thrown over the dead Jerry heaving up and down, and there was pretty pussy, still rending and tearing the body; so we shot it and continued our march to Longavesnes.

— From the diary of British lieutenant Edwin Vaughan of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, April 1917

One evening, whilst on patrol, Jacques saw some rats running from under the dead men’s greatcoats, enormous rats, fat with human flesh. His heart pounding, he edged towards one of the bodies. Its helmet had rolled off. The man displayed a grimacing face, stripped of flesh; the skull bare, the eyes devoured. A set of false teeth slid down on to his rotting jacket, and from the yawning mouth leapt an unspeakably foul beast.

— A French soldier, quoted in John Ellis’ Eye-Deep in Hell, 1989