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


… 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”


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.

Us Do Part

The will of John George, of Lambeth, who died in London in June, 1791, contained the following words: ‘Seeing that I have had the misfortune to be married to the aforesaid Elizabeth, who ever since our union has tormented me in every possible way; that, not content with making game of all my remonstrances, she has done all she could to render my life miserable; that heaven seems to have sent her into the world solely to drive me out of it; that the strength of Samson, the genius of Homer, the prudence of Augustus, the skill of Pyrrhus, the patience of Job, the philosophy of Socrates, the subtlety of Hannibal, the vigilance of Hermogenes, would not suffice to subdue the perversity of her character; that no power on earth can change her, seeing we have lived apart during the last eight years, and that the only result has been the ruin of my son, whom she has corrupted and estranged from me; weighing maturely and seriously all these considerations, I bequeath to my said wife Elizabeth the sum of one shilling, to be paid unto her within six months after my death.’

Albany Law Journal, March 24, 1900

Lieutenant Colonel Nash got even with his wife by leaving the bell ringers of Bath abbey 50 pounds a year on condition that they muffle the bells of said abbey on the anniversary of his marriage and ring them with ‘doleful accentuation from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.’ and on the anniversary of his death to ring a merry peal for the same space ‘in memory of his happy release from domestic tyranny and wretchedness.’

The Bar, November 1908

Last Stop


For about half a century, Sydney residents could take a train to the cemetery. It departed twice daily from central Sydney, picking up mourners and coffins along the way, and carried them to the 250-acre Necropolis at Haslem’s Creek.

London’s Necropolis Railway ran at about the same time, carrying cadavers and mourners 23 miles southwest of town to Brookwood, Surrey. In 1904, Railway Magazine called the Brookwood station “the most peaceful in three corners of the kingdom — this station of the dead. Here, even the quiet, subdued puffing of the engine seems almost sympathetic with the sorrow of its living freight.” Both lines closed in the 1940s.


“Death by Falling From the Clouds”

robert cocking and parachute

The following is an account of the post-mortem examination of the body of Mr. Robert Cocking, aged sixty-one, who fell with a suicidal machine called a parachute, from the cord of a balloon which ascended from Vauxhall Gardens, on the 24th of July, 1837. The height which the balloon had reached when the parachute commenced its descent, is stated to have been 5000 feet. The instrument of death was simply a canvas toy, constructed in ignorance, and used with the hardihood which might distinguish an unfortunate being who contemplated his own destruction by extraordinary and wonder-exciting means,– an end which, without the motive, was more effectually attained, by the crushing of the parachute in the air as it dropped:–

On the right side.–The second, third, fourth, and fifth ribs broken near their junction, with their cartilages. The second, fourth, fifth, and sixth broken also near their junction with the vertebrae. The second, fourth, fifth, and sixth ribs also broken at their greatest convexity.
On the left side.–The second, third, fourth, and sixth ribs broken near their cartilages, and also near their angles.
The clavicle on the right side fractured at the junction of the external with the middle third.
The second lumbar vertebra fractured through its body; the transverse processes of several of the lumbar vertebrae broken.
Comminuted fracture and separation of the bones of the pelvis at the sacro-iliac symphyses.
The ossa nasi fractured.
The right ankle dislocated inwards; the astragalus and os calcis fractured.
The viscera of the head, chest, and abdomen free from any morbid appearances.

F.C. Finch, G. Macilwain, W. Maugham, T. Greenwood, W. Thompson, surgeons

Lancet, Aug. 5, 1837

Exit Lines


Last words of executed criminals:

  • “Mercy! Mercy! Mercy! Don’t hang me! I can’t die! I’m not ready to die! I don’t want to die!” — North Carolina burglar Henry F. Andrews, 1879
  • “Where is my little boy? Look at me, my son, and take warning.” — Louisiana murderer Edward Rector, 1884
  • “What time is it? I wish you’d hurry up. I want to get to hell in time for dinner.” — Wyoming murderer John Owens, 1886
  • “These are for my sister [taking off her eyeglasses]. Please see that she gets them.” — Vermont murderer Mary Mabel Rogers, 1905
  • “They can’t kill a smile!” — Montana murderer Harrison Gibson, smiling, 1917
  • “I have something of interest to tell –” — California murderer Paul Rowland, cut off by his hanging, 1929
  • “Make it snappy.” — California murderer Charles H. Simpson, 1931
  • “You might get me a gas mask.” — Arizona murderer Jack Sullivan, 1936
  • “So long.” — Utah robber and murderer James Joseph Roedl, 1945
  • “Kiss my ass.” — John Wayne Gacy, to a prison guard, 1994
  • “Merry Christmas.” — Virginia rapist and murderer Lem Tuggle, 1996

Before his lethal injection in 2007, Arizona murderer Robert Comer said, “Go Raiders.”

“Curious Question of Survivorship”

A curious case has recently been decided in England. A Mr. and Mrs. Hambling were both killed by a falling building. The husband was taken from the ruins quite dead, while the body of his wife was warm. The question was raised whether it could be safely presumed that the wife survived her husband, as this would cause a variation in the distribution of the property. The court decided against the supposition.

Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, June 1859



Alexander Woollcott asked that his ashes be scattered at his alma mater, Hamilton College in Utica, N.Y.

Somehow they were misdirected to Colgate University, and they arrived at Hamilton with 67 cents postage due.

He once wrote, “Many of us spend half of our time wishing for things we could have if we didn’t spend half our time wishing.”