The Dim Reaper

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

We live the time that a match flickers; we pop the cork of a ginger-beer bottle, and the earthquake swallows us on the instant. Is it not odd, is it not incongruous, is it not, in the highest sense of human speech, incredible, that we should think so highly of the ginger-beer, and regard so little the devouring earthquake?

— Robert Louis Stevenson, “Aes Triplex,” 1878

Memento Mori

http://www.google.com/patents/US5031161

David Kendrick’s “life expectancy timepiece,” patented in 1991, offers a running countdown of your remaining time on earth.

Using actuarial data, enter the years, days, hours, minutes, and seconds that you expect to live, and adjust this total according to the health factors in Table II.

Then set it going. It’s not quite as bad as it looks: You can press the RUN/STOP button to pause the countdown while you’re engaged in a healthful activity (“e.g. taking a walk, breathing fresh air, etc.”). And life expectancy improves with age, so you can add a few years on certain birthdays.

But still, it’s pretty sobering. An alternate version actually includes a speaker that provides “an audible signal, as a reminder that time is passing.” “This audible signal may be adapted to operate automatically at a particular time each day or may be suppressed by the user.”

A Brilliant Finish

http://www.google.com/patents/US4781174

An ordinary cremation consumes valuable energy and consigns the body to flames, which has unpleasant connotations of hellfire and damnation. In 1983 Kenneth H. Gardner invented a greener, more uplifting alternative — the corpse is elevated through the roof and then cremated by concentrated solar energy.

A temperature of about 1,700° F. is required to provide incineration and a total of about 3,000,000 BTU’s is required to consume a corpse. Thus, at a supply rate of about 1,000,000 BTU/hour, cremation would take about three hours. A concave mirror-reflector bowl similar to the steam-producing Crosbyton hemisphere in Lubbock, Texas is considered a suitable collector. At 65 ft. diameter, a bowl of this type can produce approximately 1,000,000 BTU/Hr. under full sunshine conditions from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.

Gas burners are still available “for auxiliary use during inclement weather and/or when it is desired to expedite the cremation process.”

Late Arrivals

Reiss records the death of a woman who was hastily buried while her husband was away, and on his return he ordered exhumation of her body, and on opening the coffin a child’s cry was heard. The infant had evidently been born postmortem. It lived long afterward under the name of ‘Fils de la terre.’ Willoughby mentions the curious instance in which rumbling was heard from the coffin of a woman during her hasty burial. One of her neighbors returned to the grave, applied her ear to the ground, and was sure she heard a sighing noise. A soldier with her affirmed her tale, and together they went to a clergyman and a justice, begging that the grave be opened. When the coffin was opened it was found that a child had been born, which had descended to her knees. In Derbyshire, to this day, may be seen on the parish register: ‘April ye 20, 1650, was buried Emme, the wife of Thomas Toplace, who was found delivered of a child after she had lain two hours in the grave.’

— George Milbry Gould and Walter Lytle Pyle, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, 1896

Misc

  • It is illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament.
  • More than half of Uganda’s population is under 15.
  • 176502 + 381252 = 1765038125
  • Uzbekistan is surrounded by “stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan.
  • Great Britain never puts its name on postage stamps.

In June 2011, 49-year-old Fagilyu Mukhametzyanov of Russia woke up in a coffin surrounded by weeping relatives. Realizing she was at her own funeral, she began screaming and was rushed back to the hospital, which declared her dead of a heart attack. “I am very angry and want answers,” her husband, Fagili, told the Sun. “She wasn’t dead when they said she was, and they could have saved her.” (Thanks, Mark.)

Encore

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tennant_and_Tchaikowsky_as_Hamlet_and_Yorick.jpg

When Polish composer André Tchaikowsky died in 1982, he left his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company in hopes that he might appear as Yorick in a production of Hamlet.

No one felt comfortable fulfilling this wish until David Tennant used the skull in a performance in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2008. He continued to use it throughout the production’s West End run and in a later television adaptation.

“André’s skull was a profound memento mori, which perhaps no prop skull could quite provide,” said director Gregory Doran. “I hope other productions may, with the greatest respect for André, use the skull as he intended it to be used, for precisely this purpose.”

(Thanks, Pål.)

Woe

Closing lines of a letter to Samuel Pepys from his brother-in-law, 1686:

I am Sir Stopped with a Torent of Sorofull Lamentation, for Oh god I have lost, oh I have lost such a loss, that noe man is or cann be Sensible but my Selfe: I have lost my wife, Sir, I have lost my wife; and such a wife, as your Honour knows has (may be) not lefte her felow, I cannot say any more at present being overwhelmed …

From the King James Bible, 2 Samuel 18:33, on David’s grief at the loss of his son:

And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept: and as he went, thus he said: O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!

Poet Paul Monette wrote this elegy after his lover Roger Horwitz died of AIDS on Oct. 22, 1986:

for hours at the end I kissed your temple stroked
your hair and sniffed it it smelled so clean we’d
washed it Saturday night when the fever broke
as if there was always the perfect thing to do
to be alive for years I’d breathe your hair
when I came to bed late it was such pure you
why I nuzzle your brush every morning because
you’re in there just like the dog the night
we unpacked the hospital bag and he skipped
and whimpered when Dad put on the red
sweater Cover my bald spot will you
you’d say and tilt your head like a parrot
so I could fix you up always always
till this one night when I was reduced to
I love you little friend here I am my
sweetest pea over and over spending all our
endearments like stray coins at a border
but wouldn’t cry then no choked it because
they all said hearing was the last to go
the ear is like a wolf’s till the very end
straining to hear a whole forest and I
wanted you loping off whatever you could
still dream to the sound of me at 3 P.M.
you were stable still our favorite word
at 4 you took the turn WAIT WAIT I AM
THE SENTRY HERE nothing passes as long as
I’m where I am we go on death is
a lonely hole two can leap it or else
or else there is nothing this man is mine
he’s an ancient Greek like me I do
all the negotiating while he does battle
we are war and peace in a single bed
we wear the same size shirt it can’t it can’t
be yet not this just let me brush his hair
it’s only Tuesday there’s chicken in the fridge
from Sunday night he ate he slept oh why
don’t all these kisses rouse you I won’t won’t
say it all I will say is goodnight patting
a few last strands in place you’re covered now
my darling one last graze in the meadow
of you and please let your final dream be
a man not quite your size losing the whole
world but still here combing combing
singing your secret names till the night’s gone

Monette himself died of AIDS nine years later.

A Last Courtesy

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Great_plague_of_london-1665.jpg

… Not that the eye-witness accounts of the over-publicized Great Plague of London can be called exaggerated. There are heartrending records of what happened in rural villages too. In one small hamlet, a parish register informs us, more or less incidentally, everyone died, and the last full-grown man to get the disease actually dug his own grave in the yard and buried himself in it. He seems to have taken this strange action because he was certain he must die and because he knew that the servant-girl and boy, who alone would be left alive, would never be able to get his body out of the house. This was at Malpas in Cheshire in September, 1625.

— Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost, 1965

“The Chair of Death”

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

Convicted of murder in Illinois in 1934, Walter Dittman composed a poem to serve as his last words:

I see it grimly waiting patiently for me,
To send me as its victim into eternity.
Not a whit or bit of mercy does it show for man or beast.
Its only song is, “Die, you dog, for your slide to hell is greased.”

It’s not the thought that I’m to die that makes me want to pray.
It’s because I’ll not be there, my own, to wipe your tears away.
God knows, and so do you, that I never slew nor stole,
And though the whole world’s turned against me,
He’ll have mercy on my soul.