“If some persons died, and others did not die, death would indeed be a terrible affliction.” — Jean de la Bruyère


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.”

Death Mundane

Uninspired last words:

  • “Peter, take good care of my horse.” — Winfield Scott
  • “Have you brought the checkbook, Alfred?” — Samuel Butler
  • “Take away those pillows — I shall need them no more.” — Lewis Carroll
  • “You heard me, Mike.” — John Barrymore
  • “I haven’t drunk champagne for a long time.” — Chekhov
  • “I can’t sleep.” — James M. Barrie
  • “Moose. Indian.” — Thoreau
  • “I’ve never felt better.” — Douglas Fairbanks
  • “The nourishment is palatable.” — Millard Fillmore

Told jokingly that he had drunk a dose of ink by mistake, Sydney Smith said, “Then bring me all the blotting paper there is in the house.”

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According to tradition, barristers wear black because they’re still in mourning for Queen Mary II, who died in 1694.

Or, properly speaking, they adopted black on Mary’s death at the wish of William III and have retained it as a convenient costume ever since.

Mary is most commonly cited; sometimes another Stuart queen is named. Sir Frederick Pollock, who served as Chief Baron of the Exchequer for more than 25 years, famously joked that the whole bar went into mourning in the time of Queen Anne (Mary’s younger sister) and never came out again.

He wrote, “I have always been told that formerly the Bar wore, in Court, coats, &c. of any colour under the gown, which also need not have been black; but that on the death of Queen Anne the Bar went into mourning, and since then every barrister has generally worn black.”


John T—-, Schoolmaster.
May he be punished as often as he punished us,
He was a hard old shell.
He said the Lord’s Prayer every morning.
May the Lord forgive him as often as he forgave us.
That was never.
We his scholars rear this stone over his ashes
Though they are not worth it.
We are glad his reign is over.

— Massachusetts tombstone, quoted in John R. Kippax, Churchyard Literature, 1876


“He who fears death either fears to lose all sensation or fears new sensations. In reality, you will either feel nothing at all, and therefore nothing evil, or else, if you can feel any sensations, you will be a new creature, and so will not have ceased to have life.” — Marcus Aurelius

Waste Not, Want Not

Another gentleman, mentioned in the text-books … seemed to have a ruling passion against waste, which the court respected. The testator devised his property to a stranger, thus wholly disinheriting the heir or next of kin, and directed that his executors should cause some parts of his bowels to be converted into fiddle strings; that others should be sublimed into smelling salts, and that the remainder of his body should be vitrified into lenses for optical purposes. In a letter attached to the will the testator said: ‘The world may think this to be done in a spirit of singularity or whim, but I have a mortal aversion to funeral pomp, and I wish my body to be converted into purposes useful to mankind.’

— Basil Jones, “Eccentricities of Sane Testators,” Law Notes, November 1908


New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Cemetery contains 16,000 headstones and only one statue, a life-size sandstone carving of Army private Dennis O’Leary, who died in 1901 at age 23.

Legend has it that O’Leary was stationed at lonely Fort Wingate, where he carved the statue himself, inscribed the death date, and shot himself. Military records show that a Pvt. Dennis O’Leary died of tuberculosis on this date. But then who carved the statue, and why?

Illiterate Epitaphs

Gertrude Walker died in 1893 at age 4 and lies in Lt. John Walker Cemetery near White Horn, Tenn. Her gravestone reads:


John Young, who died in 1836, lies in St. Andrew’s churchyard in Staten Island, New York. His reads:


The epitaph of James Ewins of East Derry, N.H., reads:


The stonecutter cut an M in place of an N.

(From Charles Langworthy Wallis, Stories on Stone, 1954)

The Bird of the Oxenhams

In a letter dated July 3, 1632, historian James Howell tells of seeing a curious monument in a London stonecutter’s shop: “Here lies John Oxenham, a goodly young Man, in whose Chamber, as he was struggling with the pangs of death, a Bird with a white breast was seen fluttering about his bed, and so vanished.” Howell says the same apparition attended the deaths of Oxenham’s sister, son, and mother.

He wrote that “This stone is to be sent to a Town hard by Exeter, where this happened.”

An anonymous pamphlet published nine years later gives essentially the same story. A True Relation of an Apparition in the Likeness of a Bird with a White Breast, That Appeared Hovering Over the Death-Beds of Some of the Children of Mr. James Oxenham, of Sale Monchorum, Gent. reports that a ghostly bird had appeared at the deathbeds of John, his mother, his daughter, and an infant.

On looking into this, Sabine Baring-Gould could find no trace of the monument in the Oxenham family’s parish, and the apparition isn’t mentioned on other Oxenham graves. He concludes that many of Howell’s published letters were not genuine but “were first written when he was in the Fleet prison, to gain money for the relief of his necessities.”

Creepy, though. See The Gormanston Foxes.